Saturday, July 29, 2017

Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, sporting a new name and fine prospects, puts "As You Like It" on at White River State Park

"If music be the food of love, play on," begins a famous comedy of Shakespeare's, not the one the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company (IndyShakes) is presenting this weekend at White River State Park. "Twelfth Night" has the subtitle "What You Will," a hint that the playwright is toying with the same mood of caprice and multivalence more conspicuously signaled by  "As You Like It," the company's 2017 production.

And the band played on: The songs were peppy, but challenged the action.
The first full performance of the show came Friday night, Thursday's having been cut short by a cloudburst near the end of the first act; the run concludes tonight. Nature's capriciousness held off for the actual opening night under sunny skies. Orsino's line about music and love — and the vehicle of food that transports us into a world of ungovernable appetites — came to mind as the primacy of love in "As You Like It" was both enhanced and challenged by music.

Indeed, this production comes close to being music-crammed, to adapt an image the heroine Rosalind uses at the approach of the courtier Le Beau, "with his mouth full of news," she rightly guesses. She's the daughter of the duchy's rightful ruler, in exile in the Forest of Arden, and the inseparable friend of the usurping Duke Frederick's daughter, Celia. Perhaps the production's stepped-up focus on music makes the show more marketable, to borrow Celia's observation on the benefit of being news-crammed.

Ramon Hutchins' full-throated performances of the show's songs, accompanied compatibly by a rootsy onstage band, open and close the show. As Lord Amiens, Hutchins initially pumps up the crowd and launches the intermittent songfest, only to be cruelly checked by black-shirted ruffians in service to the usurping Duke Frederick, in Ben Tebbe's performance a vicious control freak obsessed with loyalty (why does that description feel so familiar?).

The opposition between the corrupt court and the Forest of Arden, the arena of escape where most of the action takes place, is thus brilliantly set forth in an imaginative stroke of theater. Overlaying song so thoroughly on the last scene, however, deprives the play's conclusion of an old-fashioned ceremoniousness. Shakespeare's carefully engineered happy ending becomes mainly an occasion to party. Probably Ryan Artzberger, a well-regarded actor and IndyShakes member making his debut as a director, found the symbolic figure of Hymen, who helps tie up various knots at the end, too dated.

That feeling also may have prompted the cutting of the Epilogue, which gives Rosalind her last display of humanity and gentle learning, imparting lessons in love that she has mastered over the course of the play. Understanding that almost all Shakespeare, with the possible exception of "Macbeth," undergoes trimming in modern productions, I still found some of the cuts regrettable. For instance, and at the risk of sounding all English-majory, there is a plethora of elaborate, balanced sentences and laboriously extruded conceits that characterize the language of "As You Like It." The style is prevalent in the prose romance from which Shakespeare drew his story, Thomas Lodge's "Rosalynde," which in turn reflected the gaudy "Euphues" by John Lyly, whose excess of highly ornamented prose enjoyed a vogue among word-drunk Elizabethans.

Rosalind, the heroine, the clown Touchstone, and the studious melancholic Jaques all indulge in euphuistic fancies, some of
Rosalind (as the youth Ganymede) keeps an eye on her pupil, Orlando.
which are lopped here.  Fortunately, traces of the style remain in this production: I loved how Jaddy Ciucci's Touchstone ends a sinuous colloquy with Rosalind and Celia about honor and swearing oaths with a simulated mic drop. (Another modern touch that worked well was to have the wrestling match between the Duke's favorite, Charles, and the fraternally abused Orlando carried out in a mock video-game format.)

Speaking of Orlando, there's no reason to put off further discussion of this production's success in giving so much vitality to the love-crammed story at its center. Grant Niezgodski gave a well-balanced interpretation of the hero, destined from an early meeting with Rosalind (placed around that wrestling bout) to be the love of her life. He projected the energy and good-heartedness the role requires. Though in his Arden exile Orlando is quite manipulated by Rosalind's romantic designs (surely he must sense she's not the young swain she pretends to be), Niezgodski never seemed like her unwitting plaything.

Country matters; Touchstone (Jaddy Ciucci) woos Audrey (Joanna Bennett)
That's vital in order to make an Orlando worthy of such an intelligent woman's love. It's hard to resist finding Rosalind so huge a Shakespearean triumph that no one else in "As You Like It" seems to matter. After all, there are other love affairs that need to come out well, and there's the political context that sets the whole court-and-country contrast essential to this play. Phebe (Claire Wilcher) must be arm-twisted to accept the romantic intensity of Sylvius (Michael Hosp, doubling wonderfully as the faithful servant Adam), the acerbic Touchstone has to find suitable an alliance with the country wench Audrey (Joanna Bennett), and the repentant, once-cruel brother Oliver (Peter Scharbrough) must see the excellence in all respects of Celia (Sarah Hunter, who solidly conveyed Celia's devotion to Rosalind).

But "As You Like It" is Rosalind's play; she dominates its small but still diffuse scale the way John Falstaff dominates the kingdom-defining "Henry IV" plays. Among Shakespeare's women, only Cleopatra has comparably colossal stature. Who can help being won over by her? She's likable from the beginning, and remains so, despite an episode of meanness when she tries to redirect Phebe's affections.

This production has a strong, winning portrayal of Rosalind by Lauren Briggeman. Her vocal command ranges from tremulous enthrallment as she falls instantly in love with Orlando, through vigorous upbraiding of Duke Frederick as he exiles her, to the credible low timbre she projects in her Arden disguise as a man. Rosalind is learning about love even as she exercises mastery over its intricacies, and Briggeman charmingly sustained that difficult balance.

That's why I would like to have heard her whole speech that ends with the marvelous rhetorical flourish: "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love."  The two examples Rosalind gives before this conclusion illustrate her good education as well as providing support for her argument. Despite their absence here, the line stunningly turns the certainty of death into something that happens "from time to time," and the decay associated with it into a peculiar phenomenon separate from and inferior to love. Rosalind lives by this paradox, by love's supremacy and its right to triumph over all odds. Seeing Rosalind in bridal dress in the last scene brings me close to tears every time, whether attending a performance or reading the play. She has learned so much, and she has taught everybody.

Two other performances stand out for me in this production: Bill Simmons, in broad-brimmed hat and loose summertime clothing as the banished Duke Senior, glides about the stage, spreading his arms as he extols the virtues of life in the forest. His sententious praise is lofted in life-affirming, motivational-speaker tones. The portrayal was just fatuous enough to be delightful without caricature. He reminded me of a typical interview guest on Krista Tippett's "On Being."

I must also mention Josh Coomer's spot-on rendering of Jaques, a lord attending Duke Senior who takes his cue from exile to become a figure of well-rehearsed melancholy, finding every human condition lamentable. Jaques' melancholy is a pose, embedded in a man feeling rootless in rusticity and casting about for a way to distinguish himself in inhospitable surroundings. To represent someone stuffed with attitudes without overacting is no small achievement, and Coomer handled it with aplomb. The touch of satire in his noble set-piece, the "seven ages of man" speech, helped it be the kind of highlight it's supposed to be.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The President Is Getting Stranger: You knew that, but here's a song to sum it up, with the evidence of his Boy Scout Jamboree oration

Sean Imboden's burgeoning big band moves indoors for its second-ever engagement

No cabin fever: Sean Imboden got good results from  his big-band outing.
Scheduling rehearsals for a newly-formed big band whose members necessarily have day jobs is just one of the threats to a large jazz ensemble's viability.

However long it stays together with a stable personnel list, the Sean Imboden Big Band made an exciting indoor debut — and gave cause for celebration — Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The leader, an Indianapolis native schooled in his specialties at Indiana University and Queens College in New York, guided the 17-piece band (counting the leader's occasional turns on saxophones) in compositions and arrangements he's written over the past several years — plus those of a trumpet-playing friend, Matt Riggen, who also conducted. The band had its first public appearance earlier this summer under damp conditions in Broad Ripple Park.

The first Jazz Kitchen set was loaded with promise. The blend took a while to jell, in part because realizing the sound embedded in the charts is a mixing challenge. Imboden's writing features a lot of independence among the horn sections — reeds, trumpets, trombones — and sudden rhythm-section episodes and dips in intensity. In musical terms, the result seemed somewhere in between a Rubik's cube and an M.C. Escher print. By the second set, just about everything snapped into place, and the musicians were surefooted climbing Escher-like stairways.

Such intricacy may sound difficult for the average listener to "solve," but usually that was not the case. If it was hard sometimes for a solo to stand out against a busy background, at least the intended effect was transparent. That was true  particularly when the soloist's individuality asserted itself in the texture. It's sufficient to bring forward the example of "Horizon," the second piece played, with distinctive statements by trombonist Freddie Mendoza and tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught (welcome back, Sophie!). In a few other places, saxophonist Rob Dixon rode the tide handily. His two-bar exchanges with alto saxophonist Rich Cohen during Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" gave the nimble arrangement particular verve.

Section work acquired more and more polish in the second set. Pinpoint sax coordination was displayed in Imboden's "Around the Corner," with which the band opened after the break. Riggen's lush, thoughtful "Silent Aspect" followed in such a way as to emphasize how well the members listen to each other in close-order drill. The translucent textures were an improvement on Riggen's oddly cluttered borrowing from the Sacred Harp tradition, "Idumea," with Imboden soloing on soprano sax, warming up as he went along. Kudos, however, for Riggen's sprightly take on Charlie Parker's "Anthropology."

Each set ended with an untitled Imboden blues, giving the opportunity for the band's less frequent soloists to state cases for themselves. The rhythm section (Evan Main, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Ben Lumsdaine, drums) was stellar interacting with such a variety of players in both pieces. Tucker's comping had so much zing, tonal focus, and variety that even I might sound OK in a blues chorus or two with him behind me. (No, I won't accept the challenge.)

Few obvious shortcomings in the band popped up over the three hours. The reeds need to be careful about intonation when they are called upon to pick up clarinets. And the mellow trumpet section, which sounded particularly at home when flugelhorns were employed, could now and then benefit from a lead player on the order of the Buselli-Wallarab orchestra's Joey Tartell — not a screamer like Ellington's Cat Anderson, but someone who can ride those strutting or majestic crests with authority. There were signs of such a player in the final blues, with a rare solo by Lexie Signor.

Imboden (and Riggen) deserve gratitude for exploring subtler colors, for moving rhythms and tone colors around, and for offering sufficient hints that this band has reserves of power it doesn't need to overexploit. But, first and foremost, that such an ensemble even exists on the scene with lots of good new material and capable people to deliver it merits praise.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot buttons and tender buttons: 'Human Rites' examines tissue issues (and more) in Phoenix world premiere

Aristotle described it a couple of millennia ago: the point in the drama where everything reverses suddenly. The device makes for a hairpin turn in "Human Rites" as a pitched verbal battle between a black American university dean and a white professor shifts to a drastic new level with the entrance of a third character, a brilliant graduate student from Sierra Leone.

Michaela and Alan: Two academics at vigorous cross purposes.
Seth Rozin's "Human Rites" needs this peripeteia, as the Greek philosopher described it, giving the example of the worst possible news King Oedipus could get in the tragedy that has made his name and fate immortal. Rozin's long one-act is receiving its world premiere this weekend to conclude Phoenix Theatre's 2016-17 season. Performances continue weekends through Aug. 13.

Seen Friday night on the intimate Basile Stage, the drama benefits from the audience's closeness to the action. With a play so heavily focused on issues, the interpersonal conflict behind an academic set-to needs to be proved upon our pulses.

The audience is seated on three sides of a marvelous Bernie Killian set representing the dean's office. Michaela is a matronly, self-possessed academic well-positioned to deliver some sort of payback to Alan, a professor of cultural psychology. She broke off an affair with him years ago, and finds herself newly provoked by his study of African women's attitudes toward genital circumcision in four countries.

In the fraught atmosphere of today's higher education, unanimous class objections to the professor's findings of support for the ritual practice must be answered. The dean is sympathetic to the students' viewpoint; he, of course, is fiercely defensive of a paper intended to open his forthcoming book. Nothing must come between a professor and his book, as many of us well know.

Lydia confronts Alan with the limitations of his intellectual grasp.
Rob Johansen and Milicent Wright, two veteran Indianapolis actors who never seem to have an offhand moment onstage, are perfect choices for the roles of Alan and Michaela. They are sturdy and intense in voice and movement throughout. They are feisty when confident, and put equal energy into moments when their characters' confidence flags. A wise theater teacher of international reputation, Patsy Rodenburg, has written about an actor's need for "athletic thinking."  Johansen and Wright display that in abundance.

The audience feels the intensity from Alan's fidgety pacing in Michaela's office as he waits for her to finish talking just outside with a young woman he doesn't know. That woman, Lydia, will turn out to introduce "Human Rites"' peripeteia. She enters the scene as Michaela's intended ally, under recruitment to overlay Alan's study with results that will presumably show that the practice of female genital mutilation (as its opponents invariably call it) is feared and resented as an invasive exercise of patriarchy, supported by ignorance and cultural backwardness.

Passionately enacted by Paeton Chavis, speaking with an apparently flawless African accent, Lydia expresses a worldview that throws that of her academic superiors into a cocked hat. As different as her quarreling elders are from each other, they turn out to be wearing the same set of Eurocentric blinders. How that plays out cannot be revealed here. The argument goes over a cultural landscape marked by polarities: Are women subject to the ritual shamed or enlightened? Does the practice involve sacrificing dignity or pleasure? Are there degrees of shame and enlightenment as a result? A spectrum of dignity and pleasure?

In less able hands, the conflict laid out before Lydia's entrance could have hit the stage like a lengthy version of one of those concise essay pairs at the top of a USA Today op-ed page, arguing opposite sides of a particular issue. Rozin always presents the audience with more than a wordy debate — even though the topic lies at the crux of gender identity, empowerment, and sexual politics. Scoring rhetorical points goes only so far, however, in presenting characters onstage.

Thus, emotions and the professional amour-propre of Alan and Michaela are tangled up in the legacy of their old romance. Now: ashes or embers? Their intellectual and career stature can't be separated from that experience. Nor can Lydia's independent academic ambitions be accounted for within Michaela's and Alan's frames of reference, as is quite clear right up through the play's zinger of a last line. Rozin keeps his duty as a dramatist uppermost, even as the polemical stew simmers.

The usual finely woven mesh of the Phoenix production team sustains and enlivens the three-way conflict at every point. Rozin, Jadhawani, and the able cast have fleshed out a topic that inevitably makes the political personal. We need the kind of discussions "Human Rites" embodies.

A recent poll showed that an alarming portion of the electorate believes that higher education's effect on American society is negative. I hope most people continue to disagree, because what embroils the academy — some of it messy and self-defeating —  is often essential to a clearer understanding of the world and one another. If we ever reject the challenge of arriving at that understanding, we will be in unimaginable trouble. And that's when colleges and universities will have decisively failed and merited our disdain.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, July 21, 2017

A new kind of magic for 'The Magic Flute' in Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival production

There is a world elsewhere in "Die Zauberflöte," and there always has been. It is not Coriolanus' world of bitter self-exile, but a bright place of earned happiness in which all the sorrows of worthy people are wiped away.

The opera, the last work of Wolfgang Mozart's to be staged in his lifetime, adapts readily to an emphasis on show and spectacle as it carries its ethical message to a triumphant conclusion.  Cincinnati Opera has done well to bring this particular world elsewhere to regional audiences through Sunday.

Many far-flung forces, both creative and technical, came together to create "The Magic Flute" (as it's best-known in Anglophone countries) in the form it's taking this weekend at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati. The production, which originated at the Komische Oper Berlin, has co-production credits from Los Angeles Opera (costumes) and Minnesota Opera (set construction).

The creative team was put together by Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the German company, with the live-performance-and-animation co-creators of 1927, a British firm specializing in film/stage projects.

Thursday night's performance showed immediately the advantage of removing Emanuel Schikaneder's imaginative Zauberoper libretto entirely from naturalism. We don't have to excuse the hero Tamino's collapse in fear at the attack of some lumbering monster cobbled out of cloth and wire in the scene shop. That's often the audience's first impression.

I don't want to belittle the craft of costume design, but in this show we have instead a truly scary image: a gargantuan cinematic devourer of everything in its path from the get-go. And though Tamino's frantic attempts to escape the monster have the comical overlay of the "undercranking" practiced by early movie cameramen to speed up natural movement, the first scene communicates genuine peril. We are prepared to accept Tamino as a romantic hero, a person capable of growth in moral stature under the right guidance. He is rescued by the haughty yet helpful Three Ladies, whose recurring appearances are always delightful, despite their service to the "wrong" side in this opera.

Throughout this production, the "world elsewhere" concocted by 1927 and the Komische Opera Berlin comes into its own as an arena for comedy, true love, and moral development. The luxuriant phantasmagoria still manages to support those themes. The evocation of silent film just alluded to is pervasive. There's the circular spotlighting that expands and contracts, used very effectively to direct our attention to Tamino, his much-beset girlfriend and ally Pamina, and other main characters, chiefly the prince's bird-catching companion Papageno. There are scenes when the live action is flecked with the flaws of early celluloid films, and — most crucial to the flow of the opera — the device of intertitles used to represent dialogue.

The encapsulated lovers, Pamina and Tamino, undergo trials supervised by Sarastro.
That particular adaptation of a silent-film convention avoids the chore of training non-German singers to speak German text naturally. It also allows for telegraphing emotions and verbal interaction, just as the silent films did. The result of abundant trimming is some loss of Schikaneder's wit and conversational give-and-take. The streamlining makes sense, but we lose a firm sense of the characters in dialogue, starting with the long getting-acquainted exchange of Tamino and Papageno. It means that we must shrug and accept the unlikely companionship of the high-minded prince and the birdcatcher's slightly goofy ordinariness without seeing what engenders it.

In any event, those two roles were well sung by Aaron Blake and Rodion Pogossov, respectively. Papageno has some physical comedy to convey in this show, and Pogossov does that admirably, especially late in the second act when he finally gets the girl of his dreams, Papagena, sung sassily by Jasmine Habersham.

What we first see in "The Magic Flute": Tamino attempts to outrun a pursuing monster.
Kim-Lillian Strebel is Pamina, a character modeled in appearance here after silent-film star Louise Brooks (as noted by Kosky in the program booklet). Her dark page-boy cut provides the model for all the women in the chorus, whom we see at length in the finale, where the formally dressed men (in other scenes top-hatted) join them in praise of Sarastro, high priest of Isis and Osiris and designer of the ritual trials through which Tamino and Pamina must pass, displaying the virtues of patience, wisdom, virtue, and strength (the German equivalents of which pop up on the screen several times).

Strebel displayed a soprano of high luster and sustained power in the second-act aria, "Ach, ich's fuhl's," which ennobled the hurt that Pamina feels at Tamino's mandated lack of responsiveness to her. Suddenly, we are aware of Pamina's worthiness to be Tamino's fully entitled companion in a set of trials that has tended to underline a male-only path to enlightenment. Since the opera finally gives the couple a blessing that partly contradicts the Masonic progress outlined, Strebel's strength in this one aria struck me as crucial to the production's success.

One of the great triumphs of what 1927 brought to Kosky's interpretation is the ability to fill the stage picture while positioning singers at different heights. This show literally gives another dimension to stage direction, which  almost always follows a horizontal plane. The Queen of the Night is often elevated somewhat, and Jeni Houser was here, but to especially spectacular effect, encased in a spider's body with eight huge twitching legs extending down to the floor. Her singing was rather  compromised acoustically as a result, but the evil queen's famous high notes rang out, and the vocal agility was intact.

I boggled at some of the imagery, barely resisting the temptation to slap symbolism onto everything I saw. I think sometimes animator Paul Barritt was just having fun. Some of the animal suggestions were at least totemic, I guess, such as the monkeys in the "trial" parade. But why does Papageno apparently catch only owls? Maybe that's the one kind of bird his patroness, the Queen of the Night, favors. Why are Pamina and Tamino, in a trio with Sarastro aloft, kept apart by the swinging pendulum of a large clock? I'm working on that, though I think I understand why the production designers didn't want literal, or even approximate, glockenspiel, pan pipes, and flute in view, despite repeated references to those magical or signature instruments.

The constant shimmer and shake of the show's movement rested upon visual styles that suggested both Victorian steampunk and Dr. Seuss. The danger in this novel kind of Gesamtkunstwerk is that what you see can overwhelm what you hear. The trials by fire and water were wonderfully realized. So was the eye-popping descent of Tarmino and the two Armored Men down a sort of mine shaft into the bowels of the earth.

But I was particularly disturbed by the large peeping, blinking eyes, visible as if through gashes in a black wall, during Sarastro's great aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen." With effort I concentrated on how well Tom McNichols was singing it. As for the animated winged nymph  — nude, including a pubic patch — who at one point flits over the young lovers' heads, it suddenly became difficult to focus on the purity of their mutual devotion.

Cbristopher Allen conducted, and if I was after purity, I got plenty in a magnificent reading of the overture by the orchestra.
As for the rest, I admit I was transported — the production's clear intent. It presents indeed a world elsewhere, not a half-hearted or rote attempt to fashion one merely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder. In the 21st century, there are other spirits to be served, after all. This production insists: Dream on!

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Into the discomfort zone: 'Song from the Uproar' muses on a turn-of-the-20th-century Swiss woman's self-exile to Algeria

Isabelle (Abigail Fischer) is swept up in Sufi mysticism in "100 Names for God," a scene in "Song from the Uproar."
Cultural consciousness of female self-fulfillment is at a fever pitch nowadays, but it was an extraordinary, fraught experience for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, exercised only fitfully and at great risk.

When put in the context of opera, a brave woman's story pushes back against the legacy of female heroines both vulnerable and victimized, with occasional outbursts of heroism, slanted toward maleness: Beethoven's Fidelio has to be a man for the sake of rescuing a man.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have an exceptional tale to tell in examining "the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," to quote the subtitle of "Song from the Uproar." The one-act opera opened Monday night in a Cincinnati Opera production in collaboration with concert:nova, a local chamber-music organization.

The unusual plurals in the subtitle signal the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt's bizarre, truncated path (1877-1904). Stunned by the deaths of three close family members when she was 21, she departed Switzerland alone, traveling to Algeria. She dressed as a man, became a Sufi Muslim, and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. The love affair soured, a suicide pact fizzled, she survived an assassination attempt unrelated to the liaison, and at 27 she succumbed in a desert flash flood. The waterlogged journals she kept survived. From that fragmentary personal record, Vavrek fashioned a libretto, assisted by Mazzoli, the composer.

In concentrated form, then, Eberhardt seems to have lived a series of lives and deaths. The salient facts of her short time on earth almost defeat the very idea of coherent narrative.  There is no plot to "Song From the Uproar." In a preconcert talk, Mazzoli described it as a kind of fever-dream.

The contents of the dream are voiced mainly by drifting Eberhardt monologues, with vocal support from five singers. Three dancers from Cincinnati Ballet flesh out Isabelle's memories and imaginings. Under the direction of Marco Pelle, the cast as a whole is in constant movement in and around diaphanous white cloth panels (sometimes altered by projected images) suspended from high above in the black-box environs of the Fifth Third Bank Theater of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The scenic design's other main feature is a large, mottled, sun-baked tree trunk with stubby branches, a reminder of nature's harshness in the desert climate.

As Isabelle Eberhardt, Abigail Fischer is the cynosure of the show. Displaying a mezzo-soprano of both versatile warmth and metallic sheen, Fischer was also a spectacular actor. Moving with the ease and restlessness of the adventuress she portrays, she  reflected the unquenchable grief that drove Isabelle from everything familiar to her toward an unknown world both exhilarating and threatening. The grief and anxiety return and intensify; the joys are more fleeting.

The events summarized above, as transmuted by the opera's creators, require of the show's star both physical and vocal flexibility and the capacity to convey authenticity in every gesture and facial expression. Thomas C. Hase's lighting puts a premium on that ability, and Fischer's was outstanding.

Keitaro Harada conducted, with the band off to the side of the stage opposite the tree. The instrumentation, supplemented by electronics, is flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass. Coordination seemed to be flawless, and the brilliance of the scoring indelibly served the story and the vocal line, which the unnamed and largely symbolic characters performed in choral fashion by two sopranos, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Isabelle in focus, observed from a desert tree.
Mazzoli displays in "Song From the Uproar" a personal voice, free of the need to evoke styles connected to the opera's time and place. A partial exception is "Chanson," with its buzzing evocation of old cafe music and vernacular dance that suits some of the erotic byplay of that scene of dissipation and the mixed feelings that often wash over drunks.

The suicide pact with her Algerian lover and her attempted assassination by a religious fanatic were vividly staged. An episode of interaction with the female dancer seems to be symbolic of Isabelle's rapture at the exotic milieu she has entered into out of desperation. I see it as indicating her embrace of Algerians and Muslims more than a same-sex liaison, but perhaps I'm mistaken. It was a little unclear to me how consistent Isabelle's disguise as a man was supposed to be.

Mazzoli's score lends itself to a smooth interplay between operatic focus and textures that are almost like underscoring. There is a very effective suggestion of a diva's big aria in "Mektoub (It Is Written) Part Two," where Isabelle is convulsed anew by despair after her strenuously adopted life has collapsed. "O capsized heart" reprises an earlier outcry, and it has that well-upholstered feeling, with substantial choral and ensemble support, of a climactic aria.

As for the sound palette of the work, the electric guitar sports its predictably individualized voice, but its fusion with conventional classical instruments sounds complete and natural. It also represents a bridge in tone color to the prerecorded parts of the score, including Isabelle's voice, which makes the opera's subdued conclusion so moving.

The one piece of Mazzoli's I knew before "Song from the Uproar" was "Still Life With Avalanche," a nonvocal piece commissioned by eighth blackbird. The common thread I find admirable is her fresh way of conveying emotion in structurally cohesive ways, so that a steady pulse and dense harmonies are complemented by exuberant melodies and vigorous gestures in an unhackneyed manner. The fever-dream image — suggesting the overlay of memories upon daily experience —  is fully realized by the boldness, apparent spontaneity, and clarity of the music. The drifting down of pages representing Isabelle's journal near the end is the perfect visual complement to the marvels of Mazzoli's composition: Patterns seem to emerge from life's accidents, and make sense once they can be truly observed and appropriately paced.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Without a song: Infusion Baroque visits from Montreal to acquaint Early Music Festival audience with Italian instrumental music

It's more than a ghostly influence — the Italian language that's shot through classical-music lingo — even though just about
Infusion Baroque of Montreal opened the festival's final weekend.
everyone thinks of the Austro-German repertoire as central to concert life.

"Allegro," "andante" — all those tempo and expression directions in the scores — and of course two of the most common types of classical pieces, the sonata and the concerto, fly the Italian flag. Ditto with instrument technology, particularly of strings, that represents the gold standard to this day: Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri. Oh, and the musical scale note names. Where does it end?

The prominence of Italian reflects the fact that not only opera, but also instrumental music, owes much of its origin and development to musical ingenuity on the boot-shaped European peninsula. This early, enduring power was reflected in "An Italian Voyage," the program that Infusion Baroque presented to open the final weekend of the 2017 Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Arcangelo Corelli is the composer who received the tradition of Renaissance ensemble music as heritage and transformed it into genres that modernized the sonata and established the concerto. Infusion Baroque, a quartet from Montreal, divided "An Italian Voyage" into the first half of the 17th century and from its latter half into the 18th — roughly matching Corelli's dates (1653-1713) and influence. (A misprint on the festival booklet's main program page confuses this crucial division, giving Corelli the same dates as his eminent, well-traveled pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The program notes get it right).

Infusion Baroque in performance Friday evening at Indiana History Center.
Despite the traces of Italian over the breadth of classical music, today's retrospective focus is usually on opera, devised in Italy around 1600 and advanced so conclusively by one man, Claudio Monteverdi, that Richard Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, titles a chapter with the quip, "Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi."  Italian librettists helped seal the deal for Italian-language opera, which became the standard-bearer for Italian music seemingly for good in the 19th century.

The program's first half offered a look into the early forms as they developed from the dance and were garnished by the growth of virtuosity. The simple repetitive bass line of the Renaissance chaconne, or ciaccona, lent itself to layering of instrumental voices. This was illustrated as members of the quartet came onstage individually, building upon the pattern laid down by cellist Andrea Stewart. Harpsichordist Rona Nadler provided harmonic support on a brightly assertive Robert Duffy instrument, on top of which Alexa Raine-Wright (recorder) and Sallynee Amawat (violin) added decorative lines often in near-imitation of each other. A toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi displayed the Italian taste for the ornate, taken in a virtuosic direction beyond even the most adroit singers, who were establishing the popularity of opera during his lifetime (1583-1643), thanks to Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

That the burgeoning genre of opera was an influence on non-vocal music became evident after the Tarquinio Merula chaconne
with Dario Castello's "Sonata duodecima." More expertly executed recorder-violin interplay in a structure of slow/fast alternation evoked the recitative/aria contrasts of opera. Though well-played by Stewart and Nadler in duo, Domenico Gabrielli's Sonata No. 1 in G major for cello and basso continuo overstayed its welcome. Another chaconne, this one by Antonio Bertali, was then launched without pause. The first half ended with an enthralling Sinfonia from the oratorio "La Susanna," by Alessandro Stradella, which displayed the maturation of instrumental music with the vocal heritage absorbed.

Development of musical materials in the modern sense burst forth after intermission. Corelli, the linchpin of the program, was beautifully showcased in a G major sonata. The dramatic possibilities of cadences were nicely illustrated, and the audience was shown something of the concerto style, with a first-among-equals approach here and in pieces by Geminiani and Locatelli that followed. Raine-Wright's switch to a transverse flute for works by Locatelli and Jean-Marie Leclair was welcome; I'm among relatively few early-music listeners who can easily get too much of the end-blown flute (recorder). I really loved the tone of her baroque flute; intonation was impeccable, and her agility matched what she had shown as a recorder player.

The quartet worked really well together throughout, and the wealth of contrast in handling small ensembles and exploring their potential by these baroque composers was thoroughly illustrated. I was struck by a parallelism in the two halves that was (perhaps wisely) not brought out in oral or written program notes: Both of the composers chosen to end each half — Stradella and Leclair — were murdered. That's a pretty rare conclusion of composer life spans, it seems to me; only Marc Blitzstein, a 20th-century American opera composer, comes to mind as a comparable victim of fatal foul play.

In this concert, however, there was nothing but fair play to be encountered.

[Concert photo by Dan Shields]

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Early Music Festival: Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer before the 19th century, viewed from a popular perspective

The clearest indication of what "The People's Purcell" — the program La Nef gave Friday in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival — was all about came with the encore.
Michael Slattery: The ingratiating tenor soloist with La Nef in its Purcell program.

Not that the Montreal ensemble, featuring the captivating tenor Michael Slattery, hadn't already signaled its approach to the 17th-century English composer in both its music-making and the program note. But "When I am laid in earth," known as Dido's Lament from the opera "Dido and Aeneas," is probably Purcell's greatest hit. Before singing it, Slattery invited the Indiana History Center audience to consider it in the same light as "Memory" from "Cats."

Given its familiarity, you could readily note the difference between the stately original lament of the North African queen, abandoned by her lover Aeneas on his way to found Rome, and the La Nef stylization that followed, extending the compact aria. This sort of thing is well done by the expertly coordinated group (seven instrumentalists plus Slattery), which ranges widely in style and repertoire as a matter of course.

In some sense, it may be best to borrow the term "cover" from pop music to describe how La Nef treated Purcell in this concert.  The word was used in the 1950s to describe the marketing stratagem by which black musicians' recordings were "covered" by whites to make the songs more salable. Roll over, Big Mama Thornton! It's Elvis' "Hound Dog" now.

Marketing may be less germane to identify what La Nef does, but its arrangements, fused to instrumental mastery, certainly help establish and maintain its brand. Not all of Purcell would be well-served by being put through such a blender, but the songs, whose abundance Grove's Dictionary describes as "almost embarrassing," communicate something essential about his expressive, well-knit melodic style. The sporadic dissonance in the instrumental accompaniment is also a notable feature of Purcell, and is put to effective dramatic use in the stage works. This was demonstrated, introducing and punctuating the teeth-chattering vocal line, by "What power art thou" (The Cold Song) from "King Arthur," in an arrangement with frostbitten string figures seemingly borrowed from Vivaldi's "Winter" in "The Four Seasons."

La Nef arrangements for this combination had to be fashioned from a variety of simpler accompaniments. Sometimes rhythmic and harmonic changes were made, as the program note states. You could hear that as the melody of Dido's Lament changed character and the prominence of its descending bass line receded into La-Nefian splendor. This version became indeed commensurate with the stuck-in-the-head amplitude of "Memory," though it could be argued that the simple dolor of the original song has its own perpetual ear-worm status.

Instrumental showcases gave Slattery some relief in the form of concise suites from the theater music, including a "King Arthur" Suite that featured cherishable expressivity in episodes featuring cellist Amanda Keesmaat and recorder player Gregoire Jeay. The high quality of accompaniment provided by archlutenist Sylvain Bergeron throughout particularly placed the concert, for all its inviting departures from "authenticity," firmly in the Purcellian orbit.

The loose feeling about vocal expression that Slattery brings to these arrangements was most notable in the "ah" and humming choruses of "She loves and she confesses too" that followed presentation of the smitten text. The kind of gender equality represented by both sexes' tendency to be deceitful in love was coyly represented in Slattery's performance of "When I have often heard." Sitting on a high stool and often contributing the drone of a shruti box to the accompaniment, the tenor was a mesmerizing performer, with immense dynamic and breath control.

In accepting the La Nef manner with Purcell, you had to take in a butter-smooth manner of vocal projection that sometimes wasn't far from crooning, as in "Music for a while" and the unscheduled insertion of a John Dowland piece to bring the concert up to intermission — "Now O now I needs must part." The vocal quality, however, in the latter piece was a far cry from the sincere if grainy manner of Sting in his Dowland interpretations. How a singer looks when expressing emotion is properly allowed to complement the singing, of course. But Slattery pushed the envelope somewhat, scrunching up his face and baring his teeth too often. He has so much to offer in pure vocalism, however, that a little mugging could be taken in stride.

The concluding work paid tribute to another vast part of Purcell's output: sacred music. It's a credit to La Nef and Slattery that its populist approach to the Restoration composer's music did not violate the well-crafted piety of "Now that the sun hath veiled his light," with its flowering of "Hallellujahs" (or "Alleluias") at the end. It's the kind of richness that proliferates in Purcell's music — like the variant spellings of his name, which total nine (according to Grove's).

And these musicians' efforts at putting their stamp on the music and bringing it forward while representing Purcell's energy and variety for the 21st century are worthy of hallelujahs all their own.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory: 'Richard III' pokes sticks into the hornet's nest of royal succession

So much energy is concentrated in the character of the Duke of Gloucester, scheming to become King Richard III, that the
Matt Anderson in a rare moment of calm in the title role of "Richard III"
young Shakespeare was hard put to render full-bodied everyone else in the hunchback's orbit, and not just like iron filings around a magnet.

It's a credit to a new production by First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory that the other roles are vividly filled. They may rant at and lament his cold bravado and be appalled by his ruthlessness.  They flail against Richard's ferocious will just to survive. Still, they amount to something in their usually vain struggles. There is something more to them under Glenn Dobbs' direction to make Matt Anderson's excellent portrayal of the title character more than a star turn.

But any "Richard III" that really works has to start and end with how the main role is executed.  On that score, the new production holds the attention, which is immediately arrested by the frame Dobbs and his team have put around it. That's the discovery in 2012 of Richard III's body under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

King Edward IV (Matthew Socey) is the monarch Gloucester famously resents.
The audience comes into the IndyFringe Theatre space to see two actors in modern dress talking with each other. An excavation site behind them is surrounded on three sides by a barrier. There is a table and a microscope on it. We are soon aware, when a TV interviewer and cameraman enter the scene to talk with the project director that an attempt to get a contemporary feature for the evening news is under way. It's wrapped up amid construction noise, and the crew departs.

Then Anderson as the splenetic Gloucester skulks onto the scene, uttering the first of the play's two most famous lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent," going on to decry "this weak piping time of peace" under the sickly, pleasure-loving King Edward IV, his brother. On opening night Friday, the lip-smacking sourness of this speech, one of several times Gloucester alone fills us in on his stratagems and resentments, was in full bloom. I wouldn't have suspected it was possible to say so disdainfully the word "lute," which ends the speaker's complaint that the king "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / to the lascivious pleasing of a lute." Those "l's" fairly drip from Anderson's tongue, and the "t" in "lute" stings.

The actor turns Gloucester's crooked stature, admirably sustained throughout, into a figure of towering malevolence. Everyone is diminished and undone by it: The men to their deaths, the women mostly to humiliation and shame. Allison Clark Reddick played King Edward's queen, Elizabeth, to the edge of the madness she's entitled to by what she has to put up with. Lady Anne's forced marriage to the very cause of her intimate griefs — expressed in a blend of fury and despair — was well represented by Christina Howard.

Nan Macy is fascinating as the Duchess of York, mother of the three brothers central to England's 15th-century dynastic difficulties, and worn to a frazzle by them. Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of the late King Henry VI (linking "Richard III" to the other history plays) was not burdened with the full wordiness of the part, thanks to judicious cutting, and thus could get to the essence.

The king's sons while away the time, unaware of their fate.
It's a less tidy task to run down the list of male cast members, but they all communicated their roles' functions well. Particularly poignant was the performance of Jay Hemphill as the Duke of Buckingham, sporting an uneasy laugh and a gift for rhetorically feathering his own nest — which ultimately gets him nowhere. Also solid — and getting to put one foot each in the victim and victor camps — was Carey Shea as the Duke of Clarence, dispatched early upon superstition and innuendo in a manner worthy of today's Alex Jones, and as the leader of anti-Gloucester forces, the Earl of Richmond, soon to be founder of the Tudor monarchy that would patronize the grateful playwright. Matthew Socey roared and wilted as needed in the role of King Edward, and Lex Lumpkin and Dalyn Stewart were effective in the juvenile roles of the short-lived princes in the Tower.

The costumes of Linda Schornhorst carry thorough suggestions of the play's era and are marked by individuality and detail. Brian G. Hartz's sound design varies appropriately between Renaissance and contemporary rock, and he sets the 2012 scene well with traffic noises before a line of Shakespeare is spoken.

I'll conclude with an alternative view of Anderson's extraordinary fitness for the title role. His establishment of an ambitious aristocrat chafing at his physical condition and the perceived slights that have dogged him from birth is immediate and forceful. His expressive articulation never lets up. The grimaces, smirks, and scowls, the gimlet-eyed penetration of his regard (his sustained stare-down of Buckingham could make the blood run cold), the actually sweaty relentlessness of his evil mission — all these elements are properly there. And they remain forceful to the very end.

But I see Richard in Act 5 as more chillingly self-possessed, quite on top of his corrosive bitterness, enjoying battlefield command, absurdly overconfident, though he's practically friendless. To me, his desperation and gnawing anxiety should appear to be mastered, except for a few wild moments, such as the play's other famous line — "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" His lines here are stuffed with tactical commands. He should seem almost pleased to have put all the machinations at court behind him and to play the soldier, the dogged combatant with all possible outcomes lying before him on Bosworth Field.

True, he's had a horrible dream in which ghosts reminding him of his murderous misdeeds trouble his sleep. There follows a soliloquy of self-questioning that's a little absurd on the page, but was well played here as being a kind of groggy recognition of who he has been all along. Otherwise, the quality is far away from Hamlet's "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," for instance.

But the young playwright's triumph as a rhetorician is already fully mature in this role. In support of my sense that Richard III needs a touch of eerie calm in the last act, I offer what he says just before he speaks to his army:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

Might makes right, in other words; sneaky tricks, subterfuges, and betrayals aren't enough. And here Richard sums up why enacting all his hurts on the battlefield is his final satisfaction, whatever the outcome.

Still, the integrity and consistency of the decisions Dobbs has made in bringing this powerful adaptation to the stage make the production well worth seeing.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]