Monday, July 15, 2019

'Viva Vivaldi IV': 2019 Indianapolis Early Music Festival reaches peak of the Italian High Baroque

To paraphrase the slogan in a series of local hospital ads, Antonio Vivaldi is more than his "Four Seasons."

Han Xie, festival guest soloist
That set of four violin  concertos, long subject to industrious redundancy on recordings, is just a picturesque fraction of the Italian master's huge output. Why  should those concertos be entirely overlooked in a concert built on Vivaldi's popularity, which largely rests on them with the music-loving public? Unthinkable!

So the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's "Viva Vivaldi IV: Motets, Arias, and Concerti" on Sunday featured the "Summer" concerto, with soloist Han Xie and the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, to bring the tribute concert up to intermission at the Indiana History Center.

A native of China, Xie joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2017. His training at the Peabody Conservatory took in a burgeoning acquaintance with the baroque violin. In this guest appearance, his approach to "Summer," whose programmatic content is anchored in a sonnet like its other companions in the "Seasons" set, was restrained but still colorful.  The detached phrases, thoroughly synchronized with the IBO and concertmaster Allison Nyquist, suited the seasonal character later immortalized in song by Nat 'King' Cole as lazy, hazy, crazy.

Vivaldi's craziness is largely centered in the finale with its thunderstorm and hail onslaught. The ensemble texture was thickened appropriately by theorbo player William Simms picking up baroque guitar.  Xie and the band thoroughly dug into nature's outburst. Also admirable was the performers' artfully blurry yet detailed depiction of insects annoying the poem's tired shepherd yearning for a few moments' rest.

The bulk of the composer's 500-plus concertos are for the violin. Grove's Dictionary's Vivaldi article tells us the solo instruments ranking next highest in frequency are bassoon, cello, and oboe.  No bassoon in the spotlight was represented Sunday, though the program notes mention that the Oboe Concerto in A minor is based on a bassoon piece. That  work opened the program, with Kathryn Montoya as soloist. Her tone was on the acerbic side, and a few notes in running passages didn't sound fully, yet the zest and rhythmic dash typical of the composer came through. The staggered ensemble entrances in the finale served as a reminder that Vivaldi occasionally indulged in the joys of counterpoint, though he was far from the specialist in it that Bach was.

The other concerto brought IBO member Joanna Blendulf to the fore for a Cello Concerto in F major. The  sequential writing so beloved of the composer came out of the gate breathing fire in the first movement. The slow movement was attractively scaled back to accompany the soloist with theorbo and second cello. The piece was neatly dispatched, though to me it represented the vast plateau of Vivaldian ordinariness.
Esteli Gomez is a returning guest artist of the Early Music Festival.

Finally, it was a treat to hear again soprano Esteli Gomez in three works for voice and ensemble: two sacred motets and an opera aria. Vivaldi's skill in tone-painting — so much a part of the popularity he enjoys via "The Four Seasons" — was evident especially in the aria "Zeffiretti, che sussurate." The whispering little breezes of the title are nicely suggested by the two violins in close harmony. The text's depiction of love's voice being reflected in various aspects of the pastoral scene was echoed by the adroit dialogue of voice and instruments. Gomez's ornamentation, especially in the elaboration of the opening material, had consistent radiance and precision.

As for the motets, in "In Furore in lustissimae irae," her expressive variety  between representing God's fury with sinners and a sinner's plea for mercy was especially vivid. In "Nulla in mundo pax sincera," she managed the interval leaps well in the evocative line (here in translation) "Amidst punishment and torment lives the contented soul, chaste love its only hope."  The recitative was demanding after its own fashion, with melismas tossed off in the singer's urging us to flee the world's deceitful snares. In both motets, the virtuosity she exhibited in the concluding "Alleluia" movements was astonishing.

Vivaldi, whose reputation has never quite amounted to master status, was nonetheless well served by performances that represented his enduring attractiveness. And yes, he is certainly more than his "Four Seasons."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Early Music Festival heads into final weekend honoring Leonardo da Vinci

"The World of Leonardo" extends to our world in surprising ways, such as the record-setting sale of his painting
"Salvator Mundi" at auction for $4.5 million a year ago November.

Leonardo Da Vinci's high-priced painting "Salvator Mundi."
The work was among the screen images that enhanced a concert featuring a host of musicians, including members of the locally based Alchymy Viols and Echoing Air, and two dancers. The program was conceived and directed by Mark Cudek, artistic director of the presenting Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and Phil Spray, who guides Alchemy Viols.

The program was focused on Leonardo's enduring genius, a legacy also represented by two other images much imitated and admired: "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)." But painting was only a small part of his multifaceted genius. His inventions, many taken by their creator only to the design stage, were far-reaching, anticipating technological advances centuries in the future. Several were presented for viewing in the Indiana History Center lobby as realized by students under the direction of Woody Bredehoeft,

The music drew upon dance, song, and sacred forms of the 15th and 16th centuries. The social purpose of dance in Renaissance Europe was embodied in Catherine Turocy's stately choreography for costumed dancers Kali Page and Joe Caruana. Complementary movement in and around the ensemble was well-conceived so that neither dancers nor musicians were distractions for the other. The resulting balance could thus be seen as well as heard.

Esteli Gomez, a soprano who added so much to Ensemble Caprice concerts for the festival in 2015 and 2018, was featured in frottole (secular songs) by several composers, such as the melodiously named Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. Her idiomatic rendering of tremolos in Tromboncino's "Ostinato vo seguire," an assertion of the value persistence in love, was among her many stylistic triumphs.

She is an expressive singer without mannerisms that might obscure her technical security. This was a useful display of versatility in numbers that, for all the similarities they share in creative milieus and forms, span a wide range of secular and sacred purposes. With the assistance of three male singers from Echoing Air, Gomez made special the celebrated "Puer natus est" of Heinrich Isaac, an a cappella Gregorian chant setting.

The instrumental ensemble was notable for its pinpoint coordination and the occasional virtuoso spotlights shone upon its adept members, especially lutenist Ronn McFarlane.

Phil Spray came forward at several points in the program to deliver spirited reminders of Da Vinci's genius and notable incidents of his life, several of which have come down to us through Giorgio Vasari's landmark biographies in "Lives of the Artists." That's the source of the Leonardo death narrative, with the artist being comforted in his final moments by the King of France, his most illustrious foreign patron. Leonardo's hometown of Florence had become a less welcome place to him, according to Vasari, because of a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo.  In Vasari's telling, piety overcame the artist during his final illness — a reminder that Leonardo's stature as a secular saint to posterity is far from the whole story.

Given that Vasari ends his account with praise chiefly for the knowledge Leonardo imparted about the anatomy of humans and horses, a dance-based program was an obvious emphasis for a concert evoking the setting of his innovations. Not everything could be covered, so why not stress form and its physical components as brought forth musically? Any one of several directions could have been taken to honor Leonardo on the 500th anniversary of his death, and this one seemed a most natural and well-executed choice for the 53rd annual festival.










Sunday, July 7, 2019

A power trio with no keyboard needed: Blake-Oh-Potter's 'Trion'

Drummer Johnathan Blake is the leader of this two-disc trio outing
Oh, Blake, and Potter take care of business at the Jazz Gallery.
recorded in early 2018 at New York's Jazz Gallery, and I had little reason at first to believe it would be consistently enthralling.


There's no "chordal instrument," as the publicity for "Trion" makes clear, and thus the harmonic component — while apt to be hinted at by tenor saxophone, bass, and even the drum set —would be muted or absent. My familiarity on record with the three players, especially Chris Potter, raised my expectations somewhat. But two hours of tenor-bass-drums music?

Knowing that the work is supported by the nonprofit Giant Step Arts, produced by Jimmy Katz, which is designed specifically to give public exposure to commercially doubtful but artistically worthy projects in jazz, seemed encouraging. It turns out the "wow" factor is pretty consistent on "Trion."

"Trion" exposes many revealing aspects of individuality wedded to Blake's trio concept. At the same time, there's next to no going along for the ride. Linda May Han Oh might perhaps be expected to recede in comparison with the powerful contributions of Potter and Blake.  But I didn't get the feeling that her presence was simply foundational and intended to suggest harmonies. And her solos are superb: In "Synchronicity 1," she displays a great instinct for linking registers and binding together her solos. 

Like her bandmates, she has an unerring way of folding one rhythmic pattern into the next. Near the end of the track just cited, she engages in genuine dialogue with the drums, with neither player just toggle-switching. Coherence is never in doubt, despite the music's amplitude.

Each disc opens with a torrential yet subtly varied Blake solo. The repertoire mixes originals with others' tunes, among which the most famous is Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo." There the bop language is spoken fluently, especially keyed to the well-schooled Potter. Here and elsewhere, he's always refreshing what he sets out on the table, like the chef at a high-end buffet restaurant.

Potter's "Good Hope" lives up to its title with pervasive references to South African music. Blake inserts bright, peppy kicks behind the sax. I enjoyed the ethnic flavor of his blend of muted hi-hat cymbals plus high-pitched toms. He heats up as Potter settles into a short repeated figure. Near the end the buoyancy and freedom of the first part is re-established. 

This is a release you may well feel rewarded listening to one track at a time, hitting the "repeat" button. But it probably won't disappoint if you play both discs all the way through in one sitting. You won't want to assign yourself some simple task at the same time. This isn't background music.


Saturday, July 6, 2019

I'm Counting On You (The Census Citizenship Question Song)

Jory Vinikour states the case for the modern harpsichord concerto

Much admired for his recorded contributions to the core harpsichord repertoire, Jory Vinikour in a new Cedille release displays the viability of the major 18th-century keyboard instrument in a mainstream modernist context.
Jory Vinikour is a prolific recording and concert artist.

"20th-Century Harpsichord Concertos" puts the Chicago native in front of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck for four such works. The well-recorded program includes the premiere recording of  Ned Rorem's Concertino da Camera, an early composition (1946) by one of the outstanding living American composers, who's now 95.

The Concertino is a frisky piece, starting with a Poulenc-like outburst of urbane nonchalance. The first movement boasts many tempo shifts and becomes almost theatrical in its pixieish variety, with winds predominating. The flute leads the ensemble in a sostenuto texture for the slow movement, with a delayed harpsichord entrance introducing a steady eighth-note pattern. The lyricism has the full flavor of youth about it. The finale, which sustains a skipping, animated 6/8 meter, is offhand, clever, and concise.

Vinikour has become quite the advocate for Victor Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, the longest work on the disc. He dedicates the recording to the memory of the composer (1923-2006) and his harpsichordist-wife Zuzana Ruzickova. In the first movement, the predominant mood is restless and assertive, flecked with dissonance. The harpsichord is well-suited to filling out a cluttered texture with patterns that would become tedious if assigned to the piano.

Every piece included makes the point that putting the harpsichord in combination with modern orchestral instruments is not some sort of time-travel essay.  It's rather a matter of answering the challenge of finding a new language for characteristic harpsichord sonorities — including its doubling and buff-stop idiosyncrasies — to be expressed with proportional accompaniment.

In the Kalabis, the solo-ensemble chatter in the finale, Allegro vivo, is thrilling, especially when it takes an inward turn to accommodate a violin solo near the end. This concerto often presents an aggressive front, but its overall demeanor deftly blends solo self-esteem with collegiality.

The disc opens with Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by the short-lived Englishman Walter Leigh (1905-1942). The work is likely to remind the listener of a Bach concerto at the outset. Then it settles into a neo-classical vein, with a plethora of sequences that manage not to wear out their welcome over a three-and-a-half-minute span.  The slow movement has the charm of a modal English folk song about it, and the sharply accented Allegro vivace finale underlines the virtue of compactness when the generating material is modest.

Concluding the program is Michael Nyman's unconventional Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings, which builds a pedestal on which to place a memorial tango. The amplification doesn't much alter the unmiked instrument's sound, but rather sets it in low relief against the strings. The most delightful aspect of the piece is the way the central tango is succeeded by a solo cadenza. That high-profile episode is then capped by a jazzy "post-cadenza" movement, with the exuberance spread all around.




Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guitarist John Scofield returns within a year to harvest a Combo 66 crop again

He declares his affection for Indianapolis each time he brings his band onstage, if memory serves. So it's no surprise that, for an A-list jazzman, John Scofield has come here fairly often. And it's our good fortune.
The patriarchal pose suits old maestro John Scofield just fine.


The latest gig is another two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen. He is returning with his Combo 66 quartet, drawing on memories of his first appearance here with the same personnel last fall. His sidemen are Gerald Clayton, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass, and Bill Stewart, drums.

I'm not especially partial to guitarists, but I find Scofield always worth hearing. Unless his personal collection of licks and cliches is so vast I can't remember them, he seems remarkably free of working a groove or a melodic idiosyncrasy to death. Saturday night's first set was no exception, even though the set list overlapped what he had to offer when I heard the band in October 2018.

I will avoid recycling the well-meant but rather flimsy literary analogy I came up with last time. I will stick to music and avoid comparisons even to other guitarists. If Scofield can always bring something fresh, I should try to honor that in my own way.

Again, he's conversant with a host of musical styles, adapted with unmistakable individuality. Clearly, he still nurtures an autumnal affinity for country music, a specialty he honed with considerable success in a 2016 Impulse release, "Country for Old Men." The genre allows him to inject a smoky baritone personality (think George Jones or Johnny Cash) into his playing, and the bent timbre of the pedal steel guitar can be referenced fruitfully as well. The blues is no stranger, either.

As the 70-minute set worked toward its conclusion, there was a lengthy excursion into the melancholy side of country with "Hangover."  Scofield passed through episodes of strumming, upper-range quaver, and keening lyricism, especially in his second solo, building upon Clayton's moony, swooping organ solo and the lightly applied funk suggestions in Archer's outing.

That led up to a finale whose title I didn't catch. Clayton returned to the piano, revealing with consistency that there are wholly different ways in which the conventional keyboard instrument shines in contrast to the organ. Stewart, as his long association with Scofield illustrates, hangs with the guitarist idiomatically at every turn; he never sounds like a mere timekeeper when the music draws upon rural inspirations, for example.

Scofield turned his soloing into an exhibition of vernacular electric-guitar styles. It was a personal application of what Duke Ellington used to call "the wailing interval" when introducing a Paul Gonsalves showcase. This was how Scofield roused the crowd at the end of his first set last October, and if some want to disdain that as "playing to the gallery," let them. I think it illustrates his masterly way of constructing a set. Wailing works! You can trot out all the subtlety and nuance you want along the way, and this guitarist wrote the book on much of that. But it never hurts to ramp up the energy in sustaining your friendship with local fans, as Scofield and Combo 66 should continue to do tonight.




Saturday, June 29, 2019

ACRONYM displays upper-case excellence under Early Music Festival auspices

Taking it to the streets: ACRONYM presented "Dreams of a Wounded Musketeer."
Opening the second weekend of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a program titled "Dreams of the Wounded Musketeer," ACRONYM went from a 17th-century response to foreign musical and martial influences to the rigors of full-fledged battle, which is given the ultimate in picturesqueness in the "Battalia" in D major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a major composer of the early German Baroque.

Threats to a fictional "wounded musketeer" are used as a programmatic device to link short compositions known to 17th-century Viennese musicians and their audiences. The program notes speak in his well-informed, sometimes anguished voice. Viennese in those days looked with anxiety to the east, whence Ottoman attacks and invasions emerged. "Battalia" is a concise, rich collection of depictions of occasionally undisciplined soldiery, both at war and during lulls and leisure from it, who were charged with defending the Holy Roman Empire.

ACRONYM's program-ending account of "Battalia" differs from those of other early-music ensembles whose recordings I'm acquainted with. Some of the details as far as ensemble balance, "special effects," and the doleful ending in particular must be a matter of adaptation for today's performers. Last night, a pizzicato snap on the double bass concisely represented the soldier's demise, all dreams ended. An earlier episode of soldierly revelry has been compared in its chaos of contradictory musical statements to Charles Ives. There must be considerable interpretive freedom suggested by the scores.

"Battalia" in ACRONYM's performance had the precision and panache of everything that had preceded it, starting from the piece alluded to above, "Sonata Jucunda in D minor," which carries an "anonymous" label with the parenthetical suggestion that it is the work of Biber or his teacher Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

Schmelzer was represented with certainty by his "Serenada in Mascara in A," a catchy representation of a masked ball. The dotted rhythms animating the simple theme displayed how close "classical music" in its early phases was to ordinary life, at least as ordinarily lived among society's upper crust.

The 12-person string ensemble, anchored to a central harpsichord and portative organ in a continuo role,  now and then performed at slightly reduced numbers according to the needs of a particular piece. The music was loaded with abrupt shifts in texture, occasionally in meter and tempo as well. There was a wealth of piquant overlapping and imitation of melodic lines among the four violinists, always grounded in support from middle- and lower-voice strings, which included viola da gamba,  lirone, cello, bass, and the skyscraperesque plucked-string bass lute called the theorbo.

ACRONYM was formed in 2012 specifically to play Johann Pezel's "Opus Musicum Sonatarum," a chaconne from which brought the concert's first half to a close at the Indiana History Center. Three violin soloists were featured in highly individualized episodes, which decorated the underlying chaconne with a variety of emphasis. The triple meter characteristic of the form helped ACRONYM impart a real swing to the music.

The Pezel displayed the unity and zest that seems to have carried such a large early-music group intact over the seven years since its founding on the narrow, but obviously sustaining, fulcrum of a single work. From there this expert band has spread its reach to explore the wealth of music that enabled the more familiar High Baroque to emerge and flourish.














Friday, June 28, 2019

Roses and swords: Cincinnati Opera's 'Romeo and Juliet' adds splendor to love/feud polarity

Balcony scene: "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?"
Although Charles Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" is no operatic obscurity, chances are many patrons of its production this weekend by Cincinnati Opera are familiar mostly with Shakespeare's romantic tragedy.

This company is up to its 23rd and 24th performances of the work (the first having been in 1922), which speaks to the durability of the French opera on its own. And the current co-production with Minnesota Opera gives many reasons to see "Romeo and Juliet" through the Gounod prism — with its characteristic sweetness, stageworthy majesty and forthright lyricism.

As seen Thursday night in the magnificently renovated Music Hall, "Romeo and Juliet" focuses on the symbolism of overwhelming love between "star-crossed lovers" challenged by an implacable feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. As everyone knows, miscommunication involving fatal and faux-fatal potions dooms the lovers, already challenged by Romeo's exile from Verona for having killed Juliet's cousin Tybalt.

Romeo (Matthew White) tries to separate Tybalt from Mercutio.
Gounod and his librettists make the death-eager hostility of Tybalt very nearly the fulcrum of the tragic action. So I will delay commenting on the principals. It's fortunate that Cincinnati Opera has an excellent Tybalt in Piotr Buszewski. It rests on this character to trumpet the Montague scion's intrusion on a Capulet party as a supreme insult and to stoke the interfamily bitterness more than either patriarch does.

The collective hostility is muted by the opera creators' elimination of Shakespeare's street brawl at the start. We get a sumptuously staged masked ball to launch the action, with the foreboding element of Tybalt's exposure of the party-crashing Montagues. Strenuous and intensely focused, Buszewski's Tybalt drives the action right through to his swordfight with the effervescent Mercutio, whose death Romeo immediately avenges by stabbing the Capulet hothead. With his dying wish that Juliet marry the somewhat wooden wooer Paris, the operatic Tybalt complicates matters beyond the grave.

The expansiveness of Matthew Ozawa's stage direction works magic whether the performing space is full of people or restricted to the title characters. It complements the wonders of William Boles' scenic design and the kaleidoscopic variety of Thomas C. Hase's lighting. Large, sculptural roses suspended above the stage change colors to suit the mood, from blood-red to ashen. Rows of white swords are often superimposed on the backdrop to contrast with the outsized blooms.

Ending Act 3 in the original, the grandest of grand-opera finales allows the striking visual effects (swords and roses vying for supremacy) and the music to come together impressively. The doubly fatal swordfight issues in the Duke of Verona's appearance, together with what feels like the entire
Nicole Cabell displayed Juliet's sudden maturity.
Veronese citizenry, in a chorus confirming Romeo's banishment and lamenting the irreparable rift in civic life. Conductor Ramon Tebar's exuberant control of orchestra and chorus made this scene one that will likely be deposited in the memory banks of many, to be withdrawn whenever they feel the need to answer the question: Why do you go to the opera?

Now for the principals.  Nicole Cabell captured aspects of her character that commentators on Shakespeare's play have noted: Juliet is more intelligent than Romeo and matures with stunning quickness. Cabell's soprano has a suitably worldly-wise sound. Juliet's  passion doesn't remain girlish for long. In fact, Juliet's initial effusion — the waltz "Je veux vivre dans ce reve, qui m'enivre," one of the score's "greatest hits"— didn't sound as natural Thursday night as Cabell did in the later duets with Romeo. She really blossomed as completely as the production's rose imagery with the advancement of the plot toward its tragic conclusion.

Matthew White, a handsome tenor with the look and a few vocal hints of Wagner's Siegfried, was a Romeo who repeatedly excited the audience.  (Special praise to him for stepping into the production on short notice.) His phrasing was fully sustained and the tone imbued with fervor. I found his performance of the great aria at the start of the balcony scene, "Ah! leve-toi soleil"  moving but a little under strain technically. In terms of pure loveliness, a hallmark for tenors in French opera, he didn't have lots to offer. But his performance was vivid and always displayed thoroughly credible rapport with Cabell. This came through time and again, from the lovers' initial meeting at the masked ball, through the balcony scene (with the symbolic splendor of a large coffered picture frame around Juliet), the nuptials, the night of consummation, and on to the tomb scene.

Mercutio extols the power of dreams in the fairyland of Queen Mab.
In other roles, baritone Hadleigh Adams deserves kudos for his irrepressible bonhomie as Mercutio, fun-loving in his interplay with Romeo and aptly imaginative in the "Queen Mab" aria. With his comfy bass timbre, Kenneth Shaw projected the humane warmth and partisanship on the lovers' behalf that Friar Laurent needs to have.  Catherine Keen had the matronly vigor and steadiness, even when teased by Capulet comrades, that Juliet's nurse requires to anchor the action somewhat in the real world. And in another one of the opera's few lighter moments, Reilly Nelson shone in the solo spotlight as Romeo's page, Stephano.

The second and final performance of "Romeo and Juliet" will be Saturday night. It's likely that something new in this time-worn story will be found by anyone who attends.


 [Photos by Philip Groshong]






Sunday, June 23, 2019

Premium Blend is well-suited to its rising jazz profile

Having caught the first of two sets Premium Blend played Saturday night, I feel compelled to mention the ensemble's virtues as well as its "Vices."

"Vices" is the name of its new recording, available via streaming only. The physical CD, as bandleader Jared Thompson suggested from the Jazz Kitchen bandstand, is so 20th century. (Naturally, I have thousands of them.)

Thompson solicited compliments on his new suit, with the band name fixed inside the jacket. He got them. The music on hand was just as suitable, especially to the musical spiffiness of the quartet: Thompson, saxophone; Ryan Taylor, guitar and repertoire-builder along with the leader; Steven Jones, keyboards, and Brian Yarde, drums.

Premium Blend lived up to its name at the Jazz Kitchen.
As to those virtues, this is a steadily cohesive band, with an original book loaded with catchy tunes, arranged to showcase the group's unity as an ensemble as well as the solo skills of its members. Especially impressive was the avoidance of unaccompanied drum solos in the set I heard; Yarde's solo space featured enlivening punctuation by the band, which afforded plenty of opportunity to appreciate his control and fiery virtuosity. Extended drum solos, tempo shifts all over creation, with everyone just looking on are proven applause-generators, but it's a relief to be free of them now and then.

Rob Dixon, the oft-cited "mayor" of Indianapolis jazz, sat in on alto and soprano saxes for several pieces. Thompson cites him as a mentor, yet it was evident that each man has his own style. In general, the tenor saxophonist was more florid, though always capable of making a point, not scattering the seeds of his inspiration on stony places. Dixon was just as intense, but somewhat less inclined to release flurries of notes. Both men displayed hearty, well-centered tones. Raggedy saxophonics are overrated.

They were solid partners in stating the themes. Doing so when Dixon was not onstage was the responsibility of Thompson and Taylor in unison. Accompaniments for the two-sax front line were almost always well-judged. An exception was Thompson's "Affirmation," when the thickness of background patterns was a bit too much to allow Thompson to stand out. The texture was scaled back somewhat for Dixon's solo — accidental or in tribute to the old master?

I admired Jones' facility and spicy flavors at the keyboards, including an instrument devoted to laying down nimble bass lines.  Taylor in his solos was skittery, facile, drawing the listener in and yet able to vary guitar color outwardly, as he did when intensifying his sound for a moody piece titled "Torment."

The tune didn't come close to stressing the darkness Thompson mentioned afterwards until near the end. However you interpret it, it's a safe bet Premium Blend is not focused on tormenting its audiences, but rather dispensing well-coordinated musical pleasure. Despite the new release's title, this band keeps any vices at a safe distance. As usual, virtue is its own reward.






Saturday, June 22, 2019

'White City Murder' brings past gruesomeness and glitz together under the Phoenix tent.

Amanda Hummer and Ben Asaykwee illustrate the pizazz of a show with a World's Fair setting.
The weird pull of human awfulness — serial murder division  — gets a song of its own in "White City Murder," a two-actor,  cabaret-style show that just entered its second weekend at Phoenix Theatre.

Mass killings have become part of our weekly news diet, it seems, but slaughtering a bunch of strangers in one place lacks the shimmering aura of knocking off one fellow human being after another, sometimes taking years to do so, favoring different methods and settings. That's fascinated people for decades, and pop culture has been quick to pick up on the attraction. How and why does a person construct an autobiography around killing people indefinitely?

Ben Asaykwee, the guru of classic macabre in his popular "Cabaret Poe" presentations, moves into a dramatic spectacle even more concentrated and intense with "White City Murder." Reveling in the hype and promise of progress that the 1893 Chicago World's Fair represented to our ancestors, Asaykwee focuses with relish on the discrepancy between that event and the murderous career of H.H. Holmes, who centered his homicidal genius a few miles away from that global exhibition's "White City" briefly and consequentially.

The cast list has Asaykwee as Mudgett, the Dickensian surname Holmes originally bore, and Amanda Hummer as Henry,  which is what the first H in his assumed name stands for. But those are just convenient labels for the array of characters the two partners in crime assume in the course of the 100-minute show. Their shifting identities, donned and doffed with fast-paced mastery, bring to life Holmes' prismatic identity, his kith and kin, and, in cameo format, celebrities who visited the exciting scene.
The dark side of "White City Murder" pops up continually.

The one song alluded to above teases the audience for sharing in the general fascination with serial killers. True to Asaykwee's brand, there are several other points at which Hummer and Asaykwee address and toss asides at the spectators. The show's creator typically hates to close off direct communication with those in the seats, which were filled Friday night in the Phoenix's black-box Basile Stage.

Holmes' values are given forthright expression, sometimes to further acquaint us with his self-involved attitude toward life, sometimes to toy with a predominant American cynicism about wealth and any chance to take advantage of others that we are tempted not to pass up. Lyrics that verge on inspired doggerel often carry a Brechtian sting.

Asaykwee and Hummer use a loop machine to create brief ostinatos that are then layered to provide accompaniment to the songs. The patterns are fascinating in both their creation and their simultaneous use as the songs roll out. Asaykwee's direction also brings to bear some choreographic pizazz that exemplifies the energy of an optimistic America.

On the other hand, what used to be known as the Gay Nineties was also a time of economic distress and social disturbances. Without getting obsessed with authenticity, the musical and dance idioms drawn upon have a timeless quality that display the ongoing relevance of the show's themes. Presumably, we are not all potential serial killers, but Americans perpetually bear traces of an urge to overthrow norms, to sail under their own flags, and to find a place in the sun for themselves with various degrees of regard for others, sometimes nil.

Asaykwee is especially skillful in weaving into his entertainment an abundance of facts about Holmes' life and about the World's Fair. These are packed into the songs and often carried by means of what would be known in an opera as recitative. Spoken dialogue plays a small but essential role in some scenes.

With his deft falsetto topping a wide vocal range, Asaykwee is an apt partner for the versatile and often brassier Hummer, a creditable Ethel Merman in power and diction for our times. The couple's variety of facial expression helps convey the show's wide emotional compass — from goofy exuberance to deadly suspicion, mistrust, and betrayal.

On the technical side, Michael Moffatt's bright urban backdrop uses lights to outline characteristic urban Fair forms — including the Ferris wheel, one of that event's enduring innovations — as if they were heavenly constellations in an earthly paradise. Laura Glover's lighting design covers the spectrum, and, with its touches of foreboding, reminds us that the White City's winking artificial illumination isn't enough to throw light upon dark corners of the human soul. "White City Murder" manages that in a way that is oddly upbeat, offering insights without being overly insistent. The cleverness and brio of the whole package carry the day.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]






Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Chicago Sinfonietta's Project W brings to the fore women's compositions

The historical suppression of female potential in the arts continues to be rolled back. No one can say how much greatness was thwarted by the subjugation of women. It's more to the point to acknowledge that at last their achievements are receiving more exposure, allowing posterity to have the last word. In the meantime, the injustice of unequal treatment can be mitigated by correcting the gender imbalance in musical creation and performance.

Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta
"Works by diverse women composers" is the subtitle of "Project W," a new release on Cedille by the Chicago Sinfonietta under the baton of Mei-Ann Chen. All are first recorded performances, and all new commissions except for William Grant Still's arrangement of Florence Price's charming "Dances in the Canebrakes."

Most out of the shadows of the five women represented is Jennifer Higdon, whose "Dance Card" concludes the program. In five movements, with their titles evoking the larky informality of Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony," Higdon displays her familiar amalgam of sophistication and insouciance. The next-to-last movement, "Celestial Blue," touches on the elegiac mood of her most-performed piece, "blue cathedral." Otherwise, the hints of vernacular styles color each exuberant movement, from "Raucous Rumpus" through "Machina Rockus."

The nod to diversity in the subtitle is no empty gesture. Reena Esmail embraces her Indian heritage explicitly in "Charukeshi Bandish," which includes her solo singing in the idiom of her ancestral homeland, and in "#MeToo," in which at one point the women musicians of the Sinfonietta sing in the order of their having joined the orchestra.

That compositional gesture thus explicitly celebrates the entry of women into the cultural mainstream, both in the microcosm of the Chicago Sinfonietta and in the larger world in which they must find independent, dignified ways to proceed. The structure of the piece derives from a Hindustani form called a bandish. This work strikes me as a successful bridging of two disparate cultures as well as a powerful personal statement.

Jessie Montgomery's "Coincident Dances" takes a superficially less exotic approach. But its roots lie deep in several traditions brought together through a contemporary African-American spirituality. Thus it amounts to an advance on and repurposing of the respectful folk-dance evocations in Price's work.

Finally, there's Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad's stimulating macrocosmic view of multiculturalism in "Sin Fronteras," in which dissonant elements coalesce around harmonious interaction that's consistent with the composer's vision of amity across cultural barriers.

All the performances are brightly and warmly recorded, and the program booklet is exemplary about the composers and their works as well as about the orchestra and its maestra.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Verdi's 'Rigoletto' presents a flawed figure more boldly heroic than usual




There are so many ways to be an outsider that all of us have
The grievously insulted Monterone delivers his curse to the mocker Rigoletto.
felt it at one time or another. In opera, Rigoletto, the
unlikable titular hero of Verdi's greatest early masterpiece,
stands at the summit of tragic apartness from his milieu.
He's an extreme case of his social participation being 
wholly a matter of grudging tolerance. His status is fragile.

As the court jester required to amuse an imperious aristocrat,
there isn't a trace of professional pride in him.
He encourages the Duke’s dissolute habits, makes fun of his boss's victims, and hates himself for it. He projects that self-hatred onto the Duke and his court, feeling free of their scorn only when he's away from the toxic limelight and with his only family, the nubile daughter he keeps in seclusion.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' current production takes a chance on blurring this apartness by updating the setting to 19th-century France, during the time of Victor Hugo, whose play "Le roi s'amuse" generated the composer's great enthusiasm for an operatic treatment. I know that social stratification persisted in France after the Revolution, but it requires an imaginative leap to interpret it on the rigid and controlling level it had been a couple of centuries earlier, the setting of Hugo's story.

Fortunately, cues for seeing Rigoletto as a distinct underling pervade both the libretto and the music. It's just that the social criticism seems less acute when the action is moved into the setting of, say, "La Traviata."  Costuming puts this production’s courtiers mostly in top hats and formal wear, so that reminders that they by no means represent the emerging bourgeoisie, but are of high status, are always before us. Rigoletto himself is plainly dressed (no cap and bells), making it clear he is from another emerging world — the professional entertainer, struggling to maintain an outwardly respectable foothold on the same level as the artistic rabble we know from another popular opera, Puccini's "La Boheme."

As such, this Rigoletto, Roland Wood, is constantly carrying about a large dummy whenever he is onstage at court. He ventriloquizes his japes through this puppet, which visually embodies most of the jester's grotesque pain. During the opera's brief prelude, Rigoletto mutely joins the puppet onstage during the opera’s brief prelude, which ends here with Wood's silent mimicry of an anguished scream as the curse motif is inroduced.

This is director Bruno  Ravella's striking way of communicating his approach to  the opera's central theme: the jester visibly agonized during the orchestra's first announcement of the curse that will eventually bring him down. His intended target, the rakish Duke, lives on at the end, in a denouement so striking that it's no violation of spoiler etiquette to mention it here. The courtiers presumably survive and thrive as well, having functioned so spectacularly as a chorus earlier that the audience is left in no doubt  as to their power.

In the June 14 performance, Wood displayed such stature, both vocally and physically, so that Rigoletto's fate readily evoked sympathy. The character lacks the perspective that might  have allowed him  to avoid the  tragedy, and Wood's performance made the jester's narrow vision believable. In his negotiations with the thug Sparafucile, in his pathetic duets with Gilda, in his hostility toward the courtiers, this Rigoletto was fully a flawed hero. I almost got used  to  the  fact  that Wood was not saddled with Rigoletto's conventional hunchback, but stood erect except when felled by his comeuppance. The only visible trait of the "monster" the courtiers keep mentioning is a large birthmark — the kind sometimes called a port-wine stain — down the right  side of his face.

The lascivious Duke exerts his charms on Gilda.
His relationship with Joshua Wheeker's well-sung Duke was not fully realized, however. At court, both men run in their private channels pretty exclusively, establishing who they are and where their interests lie. That the Duke values Rigoletto in his own selfish way wasn't particularly clear. We certainly got, however, an indication of his predatory sense of entitlement — thanks to the buoyant paean to promiscuity known as "Questo a quella" in the original (this production is sung in James Fenton's supple English translation).

So Young Park made for a winsome Gilda, a hard role to portray according to any 21st-century common denominator of womanhood: As Beverly Sills, a soprano who knew whereof she spoke first-hand, once said: "Gilda is such a sap." Her persistent loyalty to the Duke, whom she has first taken to be a poor, handsome student, is hard to credit, but that doesn't keep her fate from being heart-wrenching.

But Park's heavy vibrato, at first coming across as a slight liability, helped convey a character  hopelessly naive, unsure  of  herself, and plainly already a kind of victim because her father has kept her isolated and ignorant for years. There was undeniable luster and steadiness to Park's portrayal as it took shape June 14. Her performance of the aria known as "Caro nome" went from strength to strength; the more demanding the solo became, the more she rose to the occasion.

The pacing of the final scenes was tense and assured. Conductor Roberto Kalb, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in  the  pit, deserves huge credit for the musical  and dramatic success of what was originally the fourth act (Act 3 in this production, following a brief pause, so that there's a need for just one intermission).
Sepulchral lighting makes Rigoletto's dummy more prominent than the jester.

Technically, hints of the gathering thunderstorm were vividly rendered. Christian Zaremba as the hired assassin never failed to heighten the  atmosphere of menace.  The famous quartet, a showpiece alluded to early in such unexpected places as "The Adventures  of  Huckleberry Finn," came off as the highlight it's supposed to be. Zaremba's capable partners in this number were Park, Wheeker, and Lindsay Ammann as Sparafucile's sister and murderous accomplice, Maddalena. Ammann's alto line was an anchor of solidity in this ensemble.

As for the embodiment of the curse that was part of the opera's early controversy – there were religious objections to displaying the force of superstition – it came through authoritatively in the brief appearances of  Nicholas Newton as Count Monterone, a standout among the excellent array of male voices in this production.

Though its action was moved further to the brink of implausibility by aforementioned production choices, this is a "Rigoletto" to marvel at, chiefly for the sensationally well-realized vocal and dramatic bond between father and daughter.






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Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones' brings further acquaintance with Terence Blanchard as opera composer







For their debut as an opera team, Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons draw upon a recent history of  collaboration in films, with a fifth joint project in the works destined for the public screen on the slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Uncle Paul instructs Char'es-Baby and Charles in the rootedness of manhood

In his second composition for the  company (following 2013's "Champion"),  Blanchard thus had a natural libretto partner. It's little surprise that the result — an adaptation of Charles M. Blow's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" — looks and feels cinematic. The scenes, joined to the thickly scored music, flow into one another with something like movie "dissolves" making  the connections. The opera (of the same title) received its world  premiere June 15 in an Opera Theatre of Saint  Louis  production.

Another reinforcement of the cinematic approach is that "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" rests on a memoir foundation. This feels like a welcome novelty,  linking incidents in Blow's early life to the time-tested genre of opera, but it also presents creative peril. Here's the crux of it: A memoir forces a special kind of narrative, and however focused it may be, the selection of relevant memories doesn't make for a dramatic arc that can be substantiated and given coherence musically.

I found Blanchard's music  to be a thoroughly worked pastiche of motifs and melodies, some of which recur  to underline the message of revelation, much of it painful. The score thus provides a pervasive  texture behind the main character's journey toward an identity he can accept. A texture is not a trajectory, however, and that remains my chief reservation about the work.

Mother-son bond: Billie shares her anxiety with Charles.
As imaginatively staged and sung with gusto, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is rooted in the hero's marginalization as the baby of a family headed by a  determined, overworked woman in Louisiana late in the last century. He is loved, but in an oversheltered way. Known as Char'es-Baby, young Charles is especially ill-prepared to deal at age 7 with the sexual abuse he suffers at the hands of an older cousin who has come to visit. The trauma that results is the fire shut up in his bones, a phrase derived from the  Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He struggles to come to terms with it even as he matures into an outstanding student and athlete (a transformation that the opera somewhat glosses over).

The work meets some of the inherent challenges of making a memoir dramatic by overlaying the 20-year-old Charles upon his younger self. The forces of memory and actuality alike are at work, and through the simultaneous singing of bass-baritone Davone Tines and treble Jeremy Denis, the incorporation of the child in the young man is effectively conveyed.

As the opera opens, the 20-year-old Charles, enraged and driving fast, is intent on coming home armed, finding the cousin who was once a shady role model turned predator, and killing him. The pathway to personal change that avoids homicide runs through Destiny, a character both personal and allegorical for the opera's hero. The role is enchantingly sung by Julia Bullock (who occasionally assumes the persona of Loneliness and, crucially, as Charles real-life first girlfriend, Greta).

The stage picture  (designed by Allen Moyer) is largely abstract, with a metallic square framing much of the action. Video projections sometimes remind  us of the milieu's thick forestation, and at other times present portraits of Char'es-Baby with a blank, vaguely troubled expression. Slight rearrangements of furnishing and props as well as lighting changes put us in a dive bar and a church in addition to the  home of Billie and her five boys. Characters are sometimes isolated in bright squares, evoking snapshots preserved in photo albums. There is an especially effective scene evoking the chicken-processing plant where Billie works. The gruesome drudgery of such work is given almost a comical turn with a bright choral number.

William Long conducted with an evident command of the variety of musical idioms Blanchard has stitched together. The music varies from low-down to high-flown. Strings sometimes soar in billowing phrases in unison with the vocal line, a sign of Blanchard's admiration of  Puccini. A small jazz group  in the  pit supplements the  orchestral effusions. The guitar's voice is especially prominent, adding the redolence of rural blues to the musical palette.

As the mother, Karen Slack was impressive, though sometimes under vocal strain that went beyond what is needed to express her character. Billie's errant husband Spinner is lent a sly, Sportin' Life feeling of feckless irresponsibility as the straying husband-father in Chaz'men Williams-Ali's characterization. Markel Reed is both sinister and alluring as Chester, the cousin at the  root of Charles' suppressed  troubles. Michael Redding projects salt-of-the-earth wisdom and stability in the challenging  environment as the rambunctious boys' Uncle Paul.

Charles and girlfriend Greta muse on romantic obstacles.
It's interesting that white racism  exerts so little conspicuous influence on the behavior and  thinking of these characters. Surely it shapes their situation and limits their prospects, but what "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is mainly concerned with is the burdens a small community imposes on its members and the various strategies they adopt to work through the difficulties.  Thus it shares with nearly all operas a focus on the closed circuit of a few essential relationships.

Charles experiences rituals that sometimes fold individuality into group identity, but neither the exaltations of the black church nor brutal college fraternity hazing — startlingly presented in the show — address his alienation. A love affair, unfortunately loaded with cliches in the libretto, ends sadly as Greta leaves him after he reveals his childhood trauma.

The affair shows Charles how he must draw upon available resources to overcome the old woe and, as the opera's most memorable song suggests, "leave it in the road." He needs his mother's steadfast help in doing so, however, so the opera ends quietly in an African-American pieta back at home. He is about to reveal his secret, a toxic bloom whose involuntary nurture is daringly warmed by that fire shut up in his bones.










Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: In "The Coronation of Poppea," a searing examination of amorality in high places

The Emperor nuzzles his main squeeze, Poppea.
The set's severe look in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of the earliest opera to stay in the repertory focuses on the timeless nature of its alarming themes: sex and power.

"The Coronation of Poppea" is being presented in the performing version that stage director Tim Albery put together with Laurence Cummings. Since Albery's explicit English translation is also used, that amounts to a very strong individual  filter through which contemporary audiences here will be taking in Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera. The remaining performances are June 22, 26, and 28.

Hannah Clark's costumes, modern dress and business-appropriate, never seem jarring. Everything about the social milieu of first-century Rome is so remote from us that staying visually true to the period is irrelevant. What remains of core interest is the persistence of misdirected love, betrayal, intrigue, and willfulness on the part of the power elite and underlings alike.

Her set, with a clinically modern long table on casters being the centerpiece, adapts well to several  purposes. It reduces each of them — banquet setting, romantic trysting place, killing floor, and meeting place — to their  essentials. There's a large wall along the back with a ladder up to its summit. It's a world of barriers and limited access. The most humanly accessible sight is, with delicate irony, the setup for two ensembles on either side of the stage. The warm, seductive support the instruments lend to the ceaseless vocal lines oddly reassures the audience that there is a place for cooperative, benign teamwork in life after all. In the work itself, there is certainly no act or utterance that's free of individual fear or ambition.
Amore proclaims control at the start of "Poppea."
Nicholas Kok  conducts through limited  gesture, mostly head nods, while seated at one of  the two  harpsichords; Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek mans the other. The companions of each of these essential keyboard instruments are (using Francoeur-Krzyzek's informal terms) the "pluckers" (theorbo, guitar, harp) on one side and the "bowers" (two violins, lirone, viola da gamba) on the other.

The title role is filled to the hilt of sensually applied ambition by soprano Emily Fons. Her vocal and physical allure were daringly blended, and it was clear what a hold this Poppea was capable of exerting on the weak, vain emperor Nero (the Italian version of the name, Nerone, is used throughout). Nero's turbulent, bloody reign as the leader of the world's most powerful political entity is legendary, thanks to the historian Tacitus.
  
As Nero, the wiry tenor Brenton Ryan  makes himself fully capable of the emperor's impulsive, passionate behavior, which runs from lust to cruelty and back again. As seen at a matinee performance June 15, he commanded unwavering attention every time he was  onstage. He was  believably in charge of everybody. His guards, sung by Philippe L'Esperance and Matthew Cairns, make clear that their willingness to serve as Nero's henchmen is tempered by their cynicism and instinct for self-preservation.

Ottone entertains murderous thoughts.
The  corrosive effect of always serving oneself is represented with chilling comic effect by Arnalta, Poppea's nurse. As sung with majestic authority by Patricia Schuman, a soprano with plenty of mezzo heft in her tone, Arnalta is capable of both upbraiding and advising the woman she serves while later licking her chops at the prospect of her boss's replacing Ottavia, Nerone's wife and Rome's Empress. Sarah Mesko played Ottavia with a sense of entitlement that fuels her growing indignation at her rival's rise and her husband's infidelity.

Rivalry on the other side has Ottone, a role well taken by countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell, in a constant condition of fretfulness. The timbre of the male alto voice aptly conveys the whining that Ottone is accused of, but the way Scott-Cowell  handled this never verged on caricature. Ottone's attempt to mimic sincerity in returning Drusilla's affection for him was perfectly simulated by the countertenor's tense dialogue with Devon Guthrie in the role. 

One supporting role sums up the limited resistance to Nero's whims. It's that of the  philosopher Seneca, who continues to uphold the value of rational leadership beyond prudence. David Pittsinger raised the role far beyond victimhood with  his stalwart bass-baritone, giving it such stature that we are all the more grateful that Seneca's death by execution takes place offstage. Poppea has doomed  him by putting before her lover a set of "alternative facts" that seal Nero's annoyance with the philosopher and all that he represents.

 David Pittsinger as Seneca tries to uphold reason against  overwhelming odds.
Lending a bit of abstract delight to the story are the  occasional appearances and commentary of  three mythological figures: Fate, Virtue, and Love. Virtue's pleadings are a total loss in such an atmosphere, as Jennifer Aylmer's picture of futility made clear. Fate, confidently represented by Sydney Baedke, strides initially onto the stage confident of her customary rule over human affairs. But the story turns  out, of course, to be fully under  the supervision  of Love. In a nice tweaking of the traditional representation of Cupid, Michaela Wolz, skipping around wearing a baseball cap backwards, triumphantly represented the affairs of the heart that often hold the upper hand whenever humanity abandons ethical or rational control.
 "The Coronation of Poppea" is a lengthy lesson in the result of that abandonment. The boldness of the characters' motivations and their readiness to turn intent into fateful action moves forward on a stream of early Baroque melody, a blend of what would become the separate functions of recitative and aria as opera matured by the 18th century. In the genre's early phase, however, there is plenty of propitious mastery to admire, and it throbs with life in this production.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Teamwork at an exalted comic level in 'The Marriage of Figaro'

My earliest  memory of opera is seeing a bit of "The Marriage of Figaro" on a neighbor's black-and-
Aubrey Allicock projected cleverness and determination as Figaro.
white TV as a grade-schooler. It was broadcast on a Philadelphia station in an era when mass communications didn't shy away from art. I saw the moment when Susanna, Figaro's fiancee, summons the page Cherubino to submit to being outfitted in her own clothes in order to help thwart Count Almaviva's amorous designs upon her.

"Come, kneel down before me," Susanna sings, proceeding to relay instructions that will allow her to recostume the smitten teenager. My impression has remained with me over some 65 years as a useful revelation: Opera can convey ordinary actions — the details of getting someone else dressed — as magically as high-flown matters, I realized. I didn't learn until much later that Cherubino's disguise was an essential building block in a fantastic comic edifice. And I only gradually became acquainted with the many splendors of opera in full.

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Mozart's sublime comedy, which I saw June 16, finesses the vast bridging of implausible machinations and misunderstandings on the one hand and, on the other, the everyday emotions around love common to most of us and our sense of what we deserve and whatever else we presume to appropriate, whether we are deserving or not.

Directed by Mark Lamos with a fluidity and verve worthy of Lorenzo Da Ponte's effervescent libretto and Mozart's insightful, resourceful score, the production grasps unreservedly the opera's realism and fantasy alike. Religion is at a far remove, and there's nary a touch of the supernatural as the ceremony named in the title takes a serpentine path toward realization.

Letter duet: Susannah Biller (Countess) and Monica Dewey (Susanna)
Everything moves so fast that it's hard to check lines you've just heard (in Andrew Porter's witty, eminently singable translation) against one of OTSL's supertitle screens. You look up, and the line is gone.

Conductor Christopher Allen deserves credit for representing the tempos well while keeping the pace from being headlong. At first the orchestra seemed a little too loud for the singers. In Cherubino's introductory arietta, in which he restlessly declares how adolescent pangs have overcome him, the murmuring orchestra found a suitable dynamic level. From then on, I had no problem with its prominence; it could be I simply adjusted the balance in my mind's ear as I was swept away by the action and the music.

More to the point is that there was no rushing through the several moments where a reflective mood must prevail. Notably among them were the two times when the Countess sings of her loneliness as her husband seems (on good  evidence) to have lost interest in her; they are the arias known in the original as "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono." In Susannah Biller, the orchestra, in which Allen also played harpsichord, had an excellent soprano to support, both dignified and passionate in her characterization. A tempo contrast even more vital, given its rare solemnity, is the disgraced Count's plea for pardon in the last act and its confirmation by choral ensemble. The passage is worthy of Mozart's sacred music; it was given larger-than-life poignancy Sunday night.

The overture, known in a concert setting better than any other of Mozart's opera overtures, unfolded briskly, with Lamos withholding his directorial hand for a while, as the audience listened and feasted its eyes on the Fragonard-inspired, lightly erotic panels that were soon to be turned around for the first scene of the well-furnished room the newlyweds hope soon to occupy. Once the major and minor players were introduced en masse  as the overture swirled to its conclusion, they cavorted among the huge panels like lascivious sheep on a hillside, hooking up briefly but suggestively. The mood in which trivial liaisons can be taken for more serious ones was thus aptly established before a note was sung. In just a few minutes, we became mentally prepared for all sorts of unpredictable shenanigans. The disorientation served even those of us who already knew the story.

The different interpretations of their prospects by the central romantic couple, Figaro and Susanna, were nicely counterpointed in the opening scene. Immediately the vocal and acting skills of Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey burst into realization. Their fitness never wavered. They were equal in  every expression to the travails their young love must endure as the randy Count threatens to make a budding bride his own for one night, reviving the ancient "droit de seigneur." His roving eye proves to be a constant irritation to anyone connected with his estate, unless they can find ways to turn it to their advantage. Circumstances tend to work in the nuptial couple's favor and to the disadvantage of the rapacious Count.

Theo Hoffman dashingly played the Count whose nefarious designs are constantly obstructed or rerouted. Vocally he was distinguished at every turn. Biller was his equal, making the Countess a credible opponent and eventually an exemplar of fidelity. The secondary senior couple, whose closeness remains a secret till near the end, was just as well matched: Nathan Stark as Doctor Bartolo and MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, his housekeeper (and so much more). Both characters abandon their carefully nurtured but futile plans of blocking the marriage of Figaro and Susanna. In this production they are presented as more than figures of fun. Marcellina, especially, went way beyond the fretful harridan of some performances in McCormick's sturdy representation.
Also well suited to giving three-dimensionality to roles that can easily be trivialized were Samantha Gossard as the twitchily ardent Cherubino, whose needs are a kind of intense cartoon version of the Duke's, and John McVeigh as the music teacher Don Basilio, a connoisseur of gossip whose florid gestures were reminders of the blithe world evoked by the French painters who inspired Paul Steinberg's set design. Crucial contributions to the plot come from Antonio, the estate's gardener, and his daughter, Barbarina — roles discharged with picturesque vitality by Phillip Lopez and Elena Villalón.

The entire cast, from the principals and their support down through nameless peasants and villagers, worked together superbly. The large handful of characters given distinction by Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words retained their individuality in ensembles. There was no generic plant-your-feet-and-sing staging, except where it was appropriate in the final chorus. That's when a collective celebration of love and conflict resolution unravels every plot twist and sets the comedy down on a firm moral basis at last.

OTSL has two more performances of "The Marriage of Figaro," on June 19 and 29, in the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, Webster Groves.