Check out Ryan Spearman - "No Name Blues" at Smalls Tea & Coffee
Monday, June 30, 2014
By Rob Levy
In dramatic terms, Dialogues of the Carmelites is as intense as any film by Lars Van Trier or Quentin Tarantino.
Francis Poulenc’s second opera is perhaps his most famous. Its subjust is the sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, who were executed during the Reign of Terror in 1794. These brave sisters, in refusing to renounce their vocation, showed indelible courage by remaining loyal to their faith. This twentieth century opera has an almost filmic quality to it: it is both epic and tragic, as its protagonists find themselves at the center of a maelstrom of events they cannot control.
That is not by happenstance. The roots of the opera can be traced first to a novella and then to a proposed film. Failing to reach the silver screen, the work was then adapted unsuccessfully for the stage before it landed in the hands of Poulenc, who thought this story of martyrdom would be ideal as an opera.
Timing is everything, and this opera is filled with it. Blanche De La Force is an aristocrat who yearns for something more than the good life. Like many of her class, Blanche fears that the revolution is coming to her doorstep, and she wants no part of it.
As the opera opens Blanche informs her father that she is leaving home to answer a higher calling. She joins the Carmelite order in Compiègne but finds that the Mother Superior is not thrilled to have her in their commune: the ailing Prioress, Madame De Croissy, has a premonition that her arrival will bring ruin to them. Nonetheless, she takes Blanche under her wing and encourages her to find her true self.
The first half of the opera closes with the death of the Prioress and a sense of looming dread. Things only get worse as the revolution, which suppresses religious orders, comes to the monastery. This places Blanche and the other sisters in great peril, since they are housing an aristocrat in addition to their other supposed “crimes.” As Blanche flees, the sisters are sentenced to execution by guillotine. All seems lost — but the sisters’ inner strength is their absolute faith.
The great thing about Poulenc’s opera is the music. Conductor Ward Stare and members of the St. Louis Symphony do an excellent job of framing the tension on tage with a score that is at times both perfectly subtle and necessarily overstated. The score is as tenuous as the Carmelites themselves and it perfectly underpins the production.
Native St Louisan and opera legend Christina Brewer returns to Opera theatre as Madame Lidoine. Although she has a smaller role her presence is felt with yet another superb performance. Brewer is one of the biggest names in contemporary opera and having her appear in the opera is quite a coup.
Soprano and audience favorite Kelly Kaduce stars as Blanche. In the role she excels at bringing both a naïve vulnerability and inner turmoil to the character. The result is yet another powerful performance of a strong female character. Kaduce is the glue that holds the production together. She holds her own with some heavy hitters onstage, enhancing her reputation as one of opera’s young American talents.
As the Prioress Madame De Crossiy, another favorite, Meredith Arwady steals the first half of the production. Playing a dying character is never easy and she simply takes over the part and pours ever fiber of her being into the role. She creates a sense of empathy that connects with the audience; she is a commanding force to be reckoned with. A dynamo onstage she does a balancing act of being at the core of the drama without overshadowing Kaduce or her other cast mates.
There also is a sterling debut from mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas as Mother Marie who holds her own amidst a cast of audience favorites and OTSL veterans.
Dialogues of the Carmelites is a tragedy and infinite despair and sadness. Yet the music, set design and performances from an all-star cast makes it the perfect closing note for Opera Theatre’s 39th season. It’s penetrating production that stays with you long after you leave your seat. The ensemble does it job by creating an opera that is vividly heroic, passionate and heart wrenching.
By Rob Levy
In a season filled with operas centered on strong women, Opera Theatre of St Louis has unveiled 27, a world premiere production featuring two provocative women, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. 27 was commissioned as part of New Works, Bold Voices series (which began with last year’s Terence Blanchard excellent boxing opera, Champion), a three-year cycle of world premieres by American composers for the company. This project came to fruition through the hard work and collaboration of vocal music wunderkind Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek.
The Paris art scene centered around the home of Gertrude Stein has been a richly mined source for plays, movies and books. Now her tempestuous life of complexity, creativity and passion comes to life in a vivid new production that focuses on her life in the City of Lights between the World Wars. The intense drama is set entirely at her home at 27 Rue de Fleurus, a hub of creativity where Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, served as beacons for artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Man Ray and writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 27, Stein interacts with the visionaries of her time. Here Matisse and Picasso jockey for recognition while Stein and her brother Theo slug it out over who owns what in the collection. Whereas Stein had an eye for art, she had no understanding for the events of her time. She tragically believed that no war would break out in either 1914 or 1939, a fact that would tarnish her reputation for decades. And inevitably, as times changes, Stein and Toklas shared in the suffering of the war.
At the core of the opera is the relationship between a controlling, dominant and unnerving Stein, and the more practical and reserved Toklas. Despite dire times, they never lost their spirit; through bombings and occupation they never wavered in their efforts to embrace the creativity around them. The larger-than-life Stein was a tastemaker of her time, and her approval or disapproval could make or break an artist. Her taste in art was wide-ranging, and her passion for developing literary talent was just as vital; she was more responsible than anyone in bringing Modernism into the public eye.
This world premiere event showcases an amazing ensemble cast. Stephanie Blythe, a powerhouse of opera debuting in her inaugural production with OTSL, gives a mesmerizing performance. She is both an incredible vocalist and mentor to her compatriots. Her co-star, soprano Elizabeth Futral, stars as Alice B. Toklas. Futral’s work is not to be missed. Like Blythe, she rarely leaves the stage, carrying the emotional weight of the libretto. As a duo, Futral and Blythe are pure electricity.
The supporting cast fills multiple roles, which allows a small ensemble to focus the intense drama on stage. Theo Lebow gives Picasso haughtiness and a brooding tone that works well with Blythe and Futral. Tobias Greenleigh’s Matisse is snarky and pouty, a perfect fit for a production focused on the dealings of the art world.
The design team has outdone themselves. The opera utilizes one set with great effect, allowing the actors room to roam and breathe. Yet when the stage needs to close in for a more claustrophobic feel, it is pliable enough to do so. Allen Moyer’s set elegantly captures the mood of the times while also serving as a soft-toned backdrop for passionately emotional opera.
The use of picture frames to create living portraitures is a remarkably effective technique for concentrating the focus of the audience.
Oftentimes the words “world premiere” lead straight to material that turns out to be weird, unfinished or even frighteningly experimental. With 27, Opera Theatre of St. Louis has created a multi-textured production that is as emotionally deep as it is visually exquisite.
In a season laden with formidable ensembles and dominant singing, 27 sets the bar. It has everything you want in a powerful opera and its execution is flawless. This inaugural production has resonated with audiences while putting the opera world on notice that OTSL is capable of creating innovative and dynamic new work.
Its always risky business to update a classic. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is well aware of the risks involved in such an endeavor — nonetheless they persevered, and added one of Mozart’s most popular operas to their 39th season.
Reimagined by fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, this production of The Magic Flute is a daring break from the traditional. It is set on a Hollywood sound stage of the 1950s, an interesting choice that gives this rendition access to all of the glitz and glamor of that era. The stage is soaked in bright colors: the flamboyant blues, yellows and greens that Mizrahi has selected for the costumes and set make a statement that this production is as vibrant and energetic as a Hollywood musical. Complementing the color is a Tinseltown dose of sass in the form of the ensemble and a troupe of dancers.
The story centers on a handsome prince named Tamino, who has been recruited by The Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the clutches of the diabolical Sarastro, the High Priest of the Sun. When Tamino sees a portrait of the princess, he is instantly smitten and agrees to rescue her.
Tenor Sean Panikkar is at the center of this production. As Tamino he is heroic and dashing, channeling the panache of the Golden Age’s biggest stars. He gives the prince a fragility not seen in most modern interpretations. Meanwhile, Claire de Sevigny plays The Queen of the Night with a sophisticated aloofness that adds to the mystery of her character. Every piece of her performance recalls that golden age of screen sirens like Dietrich or Garbo.
Matthew Anchel clearly enjoys playing the bad guy. In his hands Sarastro is a seriously creepy dude who will stop at nothing to get his way. Elizabeth Zharoff is a star on the rise as Pamina. Her chemistry with Panikkar is electric, and she brings new layers to one of the most familiar characters in opera. Her performance is stunning. Levi Hernandez’s turn as the bird watcher Papageno is refreshingly bright. Mozart wrote him as the character that propels the action on stage. Although Papageno is a comedic character, his actions border on the heroic.
The Magic Flute is as interesting as it is confounding. There’s no real ending in the traditional sense, and each of the characters clearly pursues a personal agenda, making each more a shade of grey than black or white. Mizrahi has also utilized Masonic imagery in his version, a play on the fact that Mozart, a mason himself, sprinkled its symbolism throughout the opera. Mizrahi, in turn, amps it up, making Masonic iconography the centerpiece of the set and costume design.
Tan, rested and ready, Opera Theatre of St Louis has given a complete makeover to its production of The Magic Flute. Sashaying around tradition and staging it with unrelenting boldness, the company’s take-no-prisoner attitude captures the quintessential essence of a big time Hollywood production. The dancers hit their marks and offer a nice change of pace from the staid. Splashy, sophisticated and uncompromising, this is a new production of an old classic with a bright new coat of paint.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Friday, June 20, 2014
It may sound strange to compare Opera Theatre of St Louis’ production of The Elixir of Love to a great scoop of ice cream, but bear with me.
The company’s production of Donizetti’s comedic opera is sugary, sweet and goes down smooth. Its rich set design and creamy musical score are topped off by great performances from an ensemble that takes sugary material and adds some flavorful texture.
The Elixir of Love shines as a bold work of operatic entertainment. Stage director Jose Maria Condemi has stripped down the lavishness in order to emphasize the dramatic love story at the center of the plot. Moving the setting from Donizetti’s Basque country to the Grant Wood-esque serenity of bucolic small town America of 1914 is an audacious move that resonates with a modern American Midwest audience.
The story centers around a peasant ice cream vendor named Nemorino who falls head over heels for Adina, a strong-willed uptown girl. Knowing that guys like him don’t catch girls like her, Nemorino buys a love potion from devious and dubious Dr. Dulcamara on the assumption that it will help him win her heart.
As he waits for the potion to do its thing, Nemorino is dismayed to learn that Adina has capitulated her heart and agreed to marry a sergeant named Belcore. Helpless and frantic, Nemorino spirals into an emotional mess, not knowing that he has already won the affection of his dear Adina, who hopes to use her engagement to Belcore as motivation for Nemorino to get on the stick and win her over. Act Two details the several twists, turns, missteps and mishaps as Adina’s wedding day approaches, culminating in a passionate and tumultuous final scene loaded with deceit, emotion and passion.
The ensemble is led by tenor Rene Barbera as Nemorino, and Barbera’s mesmerizing performance is the bedrock of the entire show. His Nemorino is uncorrupted and captivating. Tim Mix plays the conniving Belcore, and in his hands we see a character who will sneak and slither to any depth to win the heart of Adina. Mix plays this role with great relish, and he clearly enjoys playing the heavy. Patrick Carfizzi plays Dulcamara as a smarmy, strictly self-interested huckster; Carfizzi’s a joy to watch onstage as he manipulates poor Nemorino. Susan Biller debuts with OTSL as Adina, a woman’s whose charm and intellect turns every head in town. Strong yet vulnerable, Biller’s Adina can hold her own and is not afraid to scheme herself in order to get one she wants.
Opera Theatre St. Louis’ production of The Elixir of Love is a fun romp and a timeless tale of unrequited love, anchored by a great cast. Scheming, dreaming, lust and love have never been this much fun!
All performances are presented at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. For showtimes and more information visit the Opera Theatre's home page
By Rob Levy
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Monday, June 16, 2014
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Monday, June 9, 2014
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Monday, June 2, 2014
Friday night, a couple hundred people gathered to watch the latest from Bill Streeter's Lo-Fi Cherokee series. If you missed, have no fear, the videos will be released throughout the month on Lo-Fi STL's website and through it's YouTube Channel. This is definitely one of the coolest things that happens every year and Eleven is proud to be a small part of it.
Check out what's to come, as the videos are released:
And the first full video, released this morning!
Check out what's to come, as the videos are released:
And the first full video, released this morning!