Posted by: operatheaterink | October 29, 2014

Review: LA Dance Project, The Theatre at the Ace Hotel, Oct. 29, 2014

The Majestic Ace Hotel Played Host to a Modern Dance Extravaganza.
Dancers perform Benjamin Millepied's 'Untitled.'

Dancers perform Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Untitled.’


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

I must thank my girlfriend for awakening within me the desire to explore the emerging dance scene in LA. Rekindling our friendship after many years, we have been reflecting on our youth when taking ballet lessons from the likes of David and Tania Lichine and Irina Kosmovska, who helped shape what is now considered to be the history of dance in LA. Although my focus remains on opera and theatre, for my birthday, I had a gay ol’ time discovering the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for starters. Why have I never been to this theatre? Why have I never heard of it? The former United Artists Theatre was built in 1927 in the Spanish Gothic tradition for United Artists, later to become part of the Texaco Building. Now part of the Ace Hotel, it is a vintage, majestic theatre that exudes historic old Hollywood charm. Think “Phantom of the Opera,” and you’ve got it.

But I wasn’t thinking “Phantom of the Opera” on Oct. 25. I was thinking about the LA Dance Project. I had heard that Benjamin Millepied, the new director of the Paris Opera Ballet, had started a modern dance company in LA. Although I generally prefer ballet to modern, I was curious because with his background, I hoped to see ballet movements laced with the unanticipated creative moves of modern.

I believe that ballet is the foundation for all of the genres in dance. The steps with their French names form the language of ballet. And the dancers’ bodies interpret the choreographed steps which are imposed over orchestrations. With modern dance, the choreography might be said to be even more creative than ballet because the steps are created by the choreographer, and the dancers, or athletes, must carry through the movements which are new inventions. In days of old, many modern dancers were not versed in ballet, and these newly invented positions often looked awkward. But in the case of the LA Dance Project, the invented movements are carried out by dancers who are versed in ballet and use their expertise to wield new creations that are well-oiled, smooth and unique, but remind us of what we have already seen. In ballet, the dancers’ seemingly jointless, flexible bodies and port de bras tell the story within the confines of the disciplined steps. The art of the dancers becomes the art of the dance. In modern dance, the creatively invented choreographed movements are duplicated by the athletes onstage. The choreography is more overtly visible as the art. The dancers, both athlete and artist, more readily facilitate the art.

The most balletic of the presentations was the 1993 “Quintett” choreographed by William Forsythe to the music of Gavin Bryars, where grand pliés, jetés, arabesque penchées and turned-out pirouettes were meshed with the modern unknown to create the themes of loss, hope, fear and joy.

With a similar flow of duets and solos, the first presentation, “Morgan’s Last Chug,” included staccato, syncopated and tumbling movements choreographed by Emanuel Gat to short excerpts of music by Bach, Purcell and others; movements to the spoken dialogue of Samuel Beckett; and a cappella dance with no music.

For actors, the text is the springboard for interpretation. In song, singers can draw from the text and musical composition. In dance, the dancer’s motivation comes from the music and choreography. The music incites motion and emotion. The presence of music in dance is significant.

The first presentation began without music. Then the music was interspersed at different volume levels throughout. Each selection’s style was unique. It was difficult to pinpoint what the piece was about. Neither I nor the person sitting next to me could, although we knew that the choreographer had given the piece meaning by abstractly infusing time and age. The music didn’t seem to be an integral part of the action. It didn’t seem to mold the presentation into a cohesive whole. The dance movements seemed to flip and flop. I wanted more creative patterning.

The third presentation, “Quintett,” had music set to Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” But one lyric was repeated over and over again until I felt like I wanted to get off the plane. After all, I wasn’t waiting for Godot. The fluid balletic movements enthralled, but the music failed to enhance.

Only the second presentation, which I like to call a modern ballet, proved memorable to meet the demands of repertoire longevity. Choreographed by Millepied to Philip Glass’s tonally significant and descriptive String Quartet No. 3 — part of the soundtrack to the 1985 film, “Mishima” — the music and choreography of each selection urged the dancers on to an excited pitch which aroused in each of us a stirring thrill. Mixing modern dance with ballet, black-and-white costuming on both men and women alike — bodies wrapped together in modern pas de deux styles and patterns that enthralled. Always tasteful, this presentation of Millepied’s “Untitled” defined what modern dance should be.

Music is an integral part of dance, especially with minimalistic sets and costumes. To take work out of the classroom or rehearsal studio onto the stage, the musical pulse must become a defining essential. Glass’s variations on a theme culminated on a pitch of urgent beauty. The music alone incited the mind to imagine visions as in a dream. Millepied seized the opportunity to create dance narrative for Glass’s movements which resulted in a perfect marriage between music and dance that sensitively benefited both genres.

In modern dance, movement must be elevated so that a performance becomes more than merely an acrobatic showcase. The first and third presentations wavered between gymnastic sketches and art whereas Millepied’s contribution was creative artistry fulfilled.

The LA Dance Project is at its beginning stages and promotes the work of established and emerging artists. The company has tours set throughout the world. Millepied will continue to serve those in Los Angeles a palette of visual delights. The performance at the Ace Hotel was only an introduction. The company is participating in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Los Angeles Music Center in December.

The able dancers included Stephanie Amurao, Anthony Bryant, Aaron Carr, Randy Castillo, Charlie Hodges, Julia Eichten, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra and Rachelle Rafailedes. In addition to Millepied, the creative team includes founding producer Charles Fabius, composers Nicholas Britell and Nico Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, and managing director James Fayette.

A benefit dinner at the Cooper Design Space in downtown LA took place after the performance. Those instrumental in lending support to the LA Dance Project include Millepied’s wife, actress Natalie Portman; Richard Mille, Catharine Soros, Eli and Edythe Broad, Lilly Tartikoff and many local organizations, radio stations, designers and supporters of the arts.

Modern dance is experimental in nature. I look forward to seeing the LA Dance Project expand as part of the growing cultural Renaissance occurring in the city of LA. It adds a vital contemporary dimension to the cultural landscape.

William Forsythe's 'Quintett'

William Forsythe’s ‘Quintett’

Choreographers: Benjamin Millepied, Emanuel Gat, William Forsythe
Ballet Masters: Sébastien Marcovici, Thomas McManus, Stephen Galloway, Jone San Martin
Costume Designers: Emanuel Gat, Janie Taylor, Stephen Galloway, Franco Martinez
Wardrobe Supervisor: Benita Elliott
Lighting Designers: Emanuel Gat, Roderick Murray, William Forsythe
Additional Lighting: Matt Philips, Ellie Rabinowitz
And others . . .
The performance included recorded music.
Photos of “Untitled” and “Quintett” by Rose Eichenbaum.

Theatre at the Ace Hotel

Theatre at the Ace Hotel

Posted by: operatheaterink | September 15, 2014

Review: ‘La Traviata,’ Los Angeles Opera, Sept. 15, 2014

LA Opera’s 1920’s Art Deco ‘La Traviata’ rates a 9.

Nino Machaidze & Arturo Chacon-Cruz.                       (Photo: Craig Mathew)

Nino Machaidze & Arturo Chacón-Cruz.
(Photo: Craig Mathew)


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

The opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s 2014-15 season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had people rising from their seats before the production of “La Traviata” even began — to sing the national anthem under the direction of the honoree of the evening, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, for his continued support of LA Opera and the arts through the funding of radio, Web and video broadcasts on KUSC, WFMT and at the Santa Monica Pier. He also appeared as a non-speaking, non-singing supernumerary or extra. As a critic, I give him a 10.

But the evening was not about the political landscape of LA. It was about opera, and that rang true from the red carpet walk of celebrities and LA Opera patrons into the Pavilion to hear opera, and on to the patio of the Music Center Plaza after the performance — to celebrate the detail-perfect opening production of “La Traviata,” the contributions of Yaroslavsky, and frankly, even the warm weather. The patio was adorned with tables and decorations in the Art Deco tradition, a band for dancing, and lights. The Opera Ball matched the production, which is set in the flapper era.

Marta Domingo’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” is a fine-tuned, upgraded revival of her 2006 production. It is polished to perfection with all the old kinks removed. I can honestly say it is a beautiful, stylish production.

Still, I am an old-fashioned girl and just love the period of the original, which is in the 1800s but has been set as early as the 1700s. Yet I try to keep an open mind because this production in 1920’s America still captures what needs to be captured and enables those of us who have seen the opera multiple times, to see it in a new light that is respectful of the composer and provides a fresh look at the story.

Patterned after the real Marie Duplessis who became Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camélias” and Violetta Valéry in “La Traviata,” Violetta is a French courtesan with beauty and class. Alfredo Germont meets, falls in love with her, and soon lives with her in a cottage on the French countryside. Georgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, cannot fathom the idea that his son is cohabitating with a “demimondaine.” He explains to Violetta that her scandalous affair with his son will affect his daughter’s wedding plans and urges her to leave him. At first, Violetta is unwilling, then consents to honor Georgio’s wishes. Since she cannot tell Alfredo the true reason for her departure, he scorns her at a party hosted by their friend, Flora.

Since Georgio is a good man and finally realizes the hurt he has caused, he tells Alfredo the truth, and the two make their way to Violetta’s residence. But it is too late. She is dying of consumption. At least the two lovers are reunited.

Analytically speaking, in the first act, we see a party-like gathering. Since this is now the Roaring Twenties in the United States, not only are the costumes and sets updated, but so are the reactions between the women and men. Violetta is free. Alfredo puts the make on her. This happens more as in the modern era than in the era of long ago. Courtisans were many cuts above prostitutes in the 1800s. Yet in the 1920s, they were more like high-priced prostitutes. So in this production, the flirting between Violetta and Alfredo seems more overt, modern, earthy and blunt than what occurs in the traditional setting of the opera, which is more subtle. Naturally, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave does not change from one production to the other, but the tone or acting of the singing dialogue does. I am not sure I like the difference. I would rather imagine what is unsaid than see it right in front of me.

Alfredo, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, sang a nice drinking song and did his share of flirting and persuasion with “Un dì, felice, eterea,” which flowed into “Di quell’amor ch’è palpito.” Soprano Nino Machaidze sang a lovely “Ah, fors’è lui” which flowered into “A quell’amor.” Her “Sempre libera” aria had flowing tones with musicality, excellent coloratura, and she was gracefully theatrical with unstilted movement. Many young sopranos sing these arias with stilted acting which is not believable. Machaidze’s singing becomes dialogue that meshes with her character so that those in the audience connect. Then we are able to forget ourselves and feel sympathy by the time she dies. Machaidze is more lyric than some sopranos who sing the role, which could be good or bad. A command of the coloratura is important, and Machaidze is a pro, but extreme thinness and exaggerated openness in the high register can be unpleasing, although sometimes necessary and unavoidable, so every soprano should watch out for the pitfall.

The first scene is cleverly staged at the beginning with a French streetlight downstage and some action between a high-priced hooker and solicitor. As the scrim is raised, a vintage 1929 Chrysler is driven onstage. I still don’t like its intrusiveness, but it does set the period with a jolt.

The sets allow us to suspend our imagination. We might see an inside room as well as the snow behind it without any indication of a window. Likewise, in the first scene, Violetta changes clothes in her salon with the help of her maid, Annina. She appears to be in a slip or something very casual. Then suddenly Alfredo enters with love in his eyes, as if he knows her intimately when the last time we saw him, the two had just met and were merely flirting. Usually this change does not occur. Some of the actions are difficult to believe. These two are fast workers. I suppose they were fast workers in the traditional setting as well, but some things are better left to the imagination.

In the second act, the new improved set, as compared to the 2006 production, flaunts some gorgeous autumn leaves and 1920’s Art Deco furniture.

Plácido Domingo has been billed as the main star of this “La Traviata,” playing the role of Georgio Germont. Normally, the two stars are the tenor and soprano with a significant baritone or bass-baritone playing Georgio. But since Domingo is the right age, has the right stature, and now sings baritone roles, he took on the elder Germont. I tried to adjust to the change. My mind was thinking that I wanted to hear a distinguished father with a lower, richer sound than the ring of a tenor. The type of vocal beauty of a tenor is quite different from the timbre of a baritone. It was difficult for my mind to adjust to the sound of a tenor in the duet, when Georgio urges Violetta to leave Alfredo. But Domingo sang and acted well, so I tried to adjust. But it was strange. Domingo sings as a baritone now, but he approaches his tones still more like a tenor. So I heard a different elder Germont than usual, but one that was realistic in presentation and clearly appreciated by the audience.

I also saw a different type of relationship occurring earlier in the act between father and son, which fully revealed itself in the following scene at the party given by Violetta’s friend Flora, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.

Chacón-Cruz sang with a youthful approach to love and a vulnerability that was refreshing. With Domingo as his tenor-like father, here the two singers with a tenor sound seemed appropriate. I saw a more real relationship between the young Germont and the older father than usual, with parallel sound. I have never seen such a passionate relationship between father and son in “La Traviata.” It adds a new dimension to the opera.

Flora’s party proved that the production is visually stunning. With the glitzy discotheque-type glimmering chandelier hanging from above and the dazzling costumes and Art Deco setting, this scene keeps the audience wide-eyed and watching. The ballet is well-choreographed and enacted. In the past, a matador solo seemed somewhat out-of-place. This time, solo dancer Louis A. Williams Jr. adds an animalistic, virile group of balletic and modern-dance movements that are executed with precision and fit this party scene which defines the moral excesses of the period.

Peabody Southwell is a delight to behold as Flora. Flora often fades into the background and is hardly noticed. Although Southwell’s voice is mellow, this role can only become visual and memorable with other attributes applied. At the opening, Southwell was engaged as her character every minute she was onstage. Her facial expressions and statuesque movements were hard to overlook. Her costume, makeup and wig add to her characterization. She has become a significant character in a scene that rarely focuses on anyone but Alfredo, Violetta, and the scenery and spectacle.

In the last act, we find Violetta dying on a round bed with snowflakes falling from behind. There might be a window that is not visible. Again, imagination helps capture the moment because the beauty of this visual makes for a modernized theatricality that creates a picture of stunning imagery.

Machaidze sang a heartfelt “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti.” We in the audience hoped that Alfredo would make it in time. Machaidze has great skill in her ability to color and shade tones whether high or low. She can crescendo or decrescendo a tone to add color that other sopranos sing straight. However, at some moments, her pianissimo tones were inaudible, but the acoustics in the Pavilion are not perfect. Although she sang more passionately than the soprano in 2006, at one moment we could see her dying actions while at the next, she seemed in prime health. Even if the actions mirror the libretto, the Anna Pavlova fragileness of Violetta throughout the act helps make the final collapse more devastating. Angela Gheorghiu accomplished this feat in her Royal Opera House, Covent Garden portrayal of Violetta under the direction of Sir Georg Solti in 1994. But as convincing as Machaidze’s portrayal was on opening night, it still needed more emotion and soul. Her sudden death seemed abrupt. The two lovers didn’t have extended passionate moments. Their connection and chemistry could have been stronger. The inevitable death was inevitable, but it wasn’t heartbreaking and didn’t make me see enough theatricality and dramatics during the moment. Marta Domingo could alter something here to enhance the effect. Machaidze is talented and should be able to follow through. I only know that the soprano must appear to be living the role.

Chacón-Cruz sang with excellent technique and sound with a youthful, real characterization. Was he as dynamic as some of the great tenors of this and the prior century? Did his sound ring forth memorably? His performance was adequate; his voice, solid; and we liked him.

Domingo sang well with the mature, weathered voice of an older artist who is able to stay on top of his technique and still create memorable characters, which is admirable and quite frankly, almost miraculous at his age of 73.

Bass Soloman Howard as Doctor Grenvil has a lush, rich sound. But he didn’t appear to be a doctor that anyone would have much confidence in. He was like a friend in the room and lacked the professionalism of an MD. Vanessa Becerra (Annina) was lovely and concerned. Daniel Armstrong as Marquis D’Obigny was engaged in voice and character. Brenton Ryan (Gastone) and Daniel Mobbs (Baron Douphol) faded into the ensemble.

Marta Domingo is the invisible star of this production. Her blocking was detailed and her directions to the singers were plentiful and specific, which has enabled them to portray their roles with developed characterizations. Her concept of production design matches her dedication to this production.

Conductor and LA Opera Music Director James Conlon keeps the orchestra moving swiftly with sensitivity toward the singers. During one sequence, I caught him mouthing the words from memory. His energy and dedication to the opera at hand motivates the orchestra.

Marta Domingo has created a lavish production. All of the singers gave solid performances. When each component is pieced together like a puzzle, the parts equal a successful whole. This “Traviata” is memorable and fulfilling and worthy of the standing ovation it received. I definitely recommend it to new opera goers because it exposes them to dazzling visuals and well-sung melodies. With more pathos, it could be a 10. Everything considered, this “Traviata” rates a 9.

Director and Production Designer: Marta Domingo
Conductor: James Conlon
Lighting Designer: Alan Burrett
Choreographer: Kitty McNamee
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Costumes: LA Opera Costume Shop
Wigs: LA Opera Wig and Make-Up Department
Set constructed by San Diego Opera Scenic Studio

Plácido Domingo & Nino Machaidze                                      (Photo: Craig Mathew)

Plácido Domingo & Nino Machaidze
(Photo: Craig Mathew)

Posted by: operatheaterink | September 5, 2014

Opera Review and Opinion, Operalia 2014, Los Angeles, Sept. 5, 2014

Thinking Outside the Box

Operalia Winners with Plácido Domingo. (Photo: Craig Mathew)

SEEN AUGUST 30, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

This is not a normal review from top to bottom. It is rather some observances that I made while watching the Operalia competition online on Medici.TV on Saturday night, Aug. 30, taped live from the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

I must begin by saying that I was not in the Pavilion so I could be incorrect regarding some of my observations because voices need to be heard live to access them accurately, but I will articulate my views anyhow.

First and foremost, this was and is Plácido Domingo’s competition, so naturally, although he was not a judge, his input was coveted. The abundance of talented young artists made for some tough decisions. However I feel that some singers were destined to win, if not first place, then second or third. In fact, I believe that they were destined to win before the competition even began.

As for the performers’ popularity with the audience, that was also somewhat predetermined. Some of the singers are or have been participants in LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program and were known by many of the audience members who came to root for them. So naturally, this time around in Los Angeles, the popularity of the singers was a bit predetermined, and awards were granted for this popularity.

Even the performance order of the singers seemed to favor certain artists. When Joshua Guerrero, Amanda Woodbury and John Holiday were called upon to perform toward the end of the competition, I said, “Aha.” As part of the Young Artist Program, I assumed that Guerrero and Woodbury had worked with Domingo and were prepared and expected to be winners. I even saw a video of Domingo coaching Holiday to showcase the competition. But in the end, I thought that the award choices were basically fair. I think there were some unexpected winners which still enabled the predetermined artists to place. Still, I feel sorry for the 1000 contestants who entered the competition, and for the 40 who competed in Los Angeles, because the slate was not clean at the onset. Yet the first- and second-place winners were very obviously the most deserving.

The jury consisted of 15 distinguished judges. I won’t list them all here, but they included Marta Domingo, Plácido Domingo’s wife and the director of LA Opera’s “La Traviata”; LA Opera Music Director James Conlon; LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch; F. Paul Driscoll, Editor-in-Chief of “Opera News”; Anthony Freud, General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago; Jonathan Friend, artistic administrator of the Met; Ioan Holender, artistic advisor of the Met and former general director of the Wiener Staatsoper; Peter Katona, casting director of the Royal Opera House, London; Joan Matabosch, artistic director, Teatro Real, Madrid; Andrés Rodriguez, General Director, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Chile; Helga Schmidt, Intendente, Palau de les Arts, Valencia, Spain.

These are very significant names in the opera world. I would have liked to have seen some international singers in the mix as well, plus even some prominent voice teachers or professors. Some of the members of the jury had vocal backgrounds before switching to administration and casting, but some did not. Part of the purpose of Operalia is to showcase young opera talents so that they have the opportunity to be heard by those who cast for the leading opera companies. Still, to arrive at an unbiased appraisal, a few singers and teachers might have added positively to the mix.

That said, soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen sang Wagner’s “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser.” Performing first is not an enviable position, but as the other sopranos performed, she proved clearly to be the winner for her clear vocality, secure professionality and stage presence. However, she not only won the female first-place prize, but also the Birgit Nilsson Prize as well as the prize for zarzuela. She was the only competitor to sing Wagner or Strauss who made it to the finals, so she was the only singer who could have secured the Nilsson prize. Maybe there should be a larger pool of Wagnerian singers in the future. They exist. Maybe Operalia could steal some from the Seattle Opera contest. Hopefully, as long as the award exists, there should be a larger pool to draw from.

Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang was an excellent choice for the male first-place winner. He sang “Ella mi fu rapita” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” I don’t believe he won for having necessarily the best voice, but rather for blending his solid tones with security, passion and charisma. When he walked out on the stage, he was a presence, and he was able to communicate the emotions of what we think of as an Italian tenor to the audience. He may need work technically if he wants to sustain a lasting career. He is not a natural tenor with a naturally focused tenor sound like Pavarotti’s was in his younger years. Chang’s tones didn’t seem as lyric and were not effortlessly placed naturally. Some slightly more baritonal tenors have to work harder to achieve a tenor’s resonance, but often become even more successful in the end. However, I must preface this observation by saying that I heard Chang had some sort of catarrh the week before the competition, so the ailment may have affected his delivery. He was bringing the tones up instead of relaxing the throat so that they could just “be there.” So by the end of the aria, vocal tension led to hoarseness. However the jury seemed to disregard the problem because it took great strength for this artist to compete against the caliber of singers in the competition when not in perfect health. So Chang was the male winner because he had the most charismatic presence and emotional musicality of the tenors, and there were no basses or baritones in the finals. Chang was also the winner of the male zarzuela and audience popularity prizes.

Joshua Guerrero sang Puccini’s “Torna ai felici di.” The audience seemed to want him to win, so he was singing with a fan club. He has a rare presence. Part of him seemed to be saying: “Here I am. I am ‘it.’ I am supposed to win.” And another part of him seemed surprised at all the attention. As he received applause at the end of the aria, he seemed to be saying: “You like me? I wanted you to like me. I know I was supposed to expect this, but I can’t quite believe this is real. You mean it is ‘me’ who is creating this applause? Gee, thank you.”

So with Joshua Guerrero, you get someone who sings with security but still is insecure. Did he have the best voice of the tenors? I don’t know. Maybe. Why did he win the male second-place prize and the CulturArte award? First, he is likeable. But mostly, of all the tenors, his technique was by far the best. He has no doubt spent time as a member of the LA Opera Young Artist Program receiving lots of in-depth individual attention. I have watched numerous classes in the studio of Vladimir Chernov at UCLA. Chernov often explains to students to be “mad like a dog” or some other rabid animal. I never quite understood what he was alluding to. Well, I was watching Guerrero, and suddenly I saw the mad dog trait in the way he projected a tone. I saw it on his face and heard it in his delivery. Only later did I see that he has studied in Austria with Chernov. What was so obvious was that his tones were up where they should be. They were focused so that they could ring forth with support and little tension. His body was grounded yet his tones were flying. He is preparing his voice for the long haul. For this competition, he might not have been as polished or charismatic or passionate as Chang, but he has the goods, and he will keep the goods for a very long time. I have to praise him for having the integrity to learn his craft. I still think that Chang was the right first-place winner, but maybe not if they were to compete together again in a couple of years.

Likewise, Amanda Woodbury, the female second-place winner, came out on the stage and knocked everyone alive with her bravura and polished performance of “A vos jeux, mes amis” from Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet.” She too has received much attention as a participant in the Young Artist Program and beyond, as Micaëla in a recent LA Opera production of “Carmen.” She is ready, and the audience liked her.

I feel badly for some of the other competitors, though. First, I must say that two countertenors won the male third-place award: Andrey Nemzer and John Holiday. I believe that Holiday was the predetermined singer to win. He will be singing in LA Opera’s upcoming “Dido & Aeneas.” However, when Nemzer proved to be quite extraordinary in voice and presentation, the jury had to do something. The result was a tie between both artists. Both were worthy, yet it seems that a choice should have been made.

The same thing happened with the third-place female singers. Anaïs Constans sang Bellini’s “O quante volte ti chiedo” and Mariangela Sicilia sang Gounod’s “Amour, ranime mon courage.” Sicilia, who was the more charismatic of the two talented women, positioned her face and mouth in a manner I have only seen with tenors. She sort of pouched her upper lip downwards and didn’t smile with an uplift to her cheeks. I knew a tenor who sang that way but quickly changed tactics. Neither soprano excited me as being phenomenal although both have trained well. Their top tones proved less than thrilling. Yet they tied for third place when others were also deserving.

The two mezzo-sopranos were quite special. Alisa Kolosova seemed a little lost on the stage as she sang “Cruda sorte” from Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” but I heard a unique quality in her voice from the onset. Carol Garcia sang Rossini’s “Nacqui all’affanno” from “La Cenerentola.” Technically, her voice crescendoed to the highs with richness that never sounded thin or metallic, and she had a wonderful chesty quality to her lows. There was no break in the passaggio area (which was admirable) and she navigated the coloratura well. Was she a perfect Angelina? Probably not. Was the aria even the most appropriate for her voice with its dramatic capabilities? That I don’t know. All I know is that she has the potential for a thriving career, and I didn’t like having to compare her voice to the voices of the sopranos who tied for third place. I believe that Garcia was ripe for a commendation.

The tenor finalists who did not win prizes had promising voices but were insecure, not as strong technically as they might have been, nor did they have strong stage presence. Strangely, both chose Massenet selections. Abdellah Lasri sang “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” from “Manon,” and Yi Li sang “Pourquoi me réveiller” from “Werther.” Singing from the French repertoire can often lead to nasal singing if a tenor is not careful, but it also enables the sound of a tear to flow forth. Yi Li sang with much sensitivity and feeling. I heard great potential.

Each artist in the competition was at a different stage of development. I suggest that maybe a fourth-place prize might be established to eliminate ties and to give more of the finalists the ability to achieve. I believe that all of the finalists were incredibly talented, including Christina Poulitsi, who could have easily tied with one of the third-place sopranos. All of the finalists should feel rewarded. Great artists have something singular that makes them special. It is that particular singular quality which should be nurtured. One singer should never try to sing like another to compete. Some of the artists still need to work more than others on technique or acting or stage presence, but they should all be extremely proud of their accomplishments. Bravo to all the winners — all 13 of them.

Concert Conducted by Plácido Domingo

Ages of Finalists: 26 to 32

First-Place Prize: $30,000
Second-Place: $20,000
Third-Place: $10,000
Birgit Nilsson Prize: $15,000
CulturArte Prize: $10,000
Zarzuela Prize: $10,000

Encore to Review

My Operalia review is on the finals concert. After posting it, I looked at the list of contestants and started searching for some of them on YouTube. I was not at the competition and do not know how some of competitors performed. A clip on YouTube may not be a valid indicator of an artist’s performance under pressure at a competition. But not one baritone, bass or bass-baritone made it to the final round. I thought that possibly no one could compete. Please listen to Germán Olvera who didn’t make the grade. I like what I hear.

Renée Fleming Was Magnificent in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’
But the Play Put to Music Raises Doubts.

Renée Fleming as Blanche,
Ryan McKinny as Stanley.
(Photo: Robert Millard)


SEEN MAY 24, 2014


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

I have so many thoughts about LA Opera’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” — adapted to music by André Previn — that I will start with the one positive element that is not debatable: Soprano Renée Fleming was magnificent. Her voice glistened up the scale with shimmering tonality and luminescent pianissimos. Her Blanche DuBois was graceful, flirtatious, fragile, frightened and devastating.

The complete cast was excellent. Ryan McKinny made the role of Stanley Kowalski his own so that we did not compare him to Marlon Brando in the film. Whether an acting Stanley or a singing Stanley, McKinny was as good a Stanley as Stanleys get, and I rate him among the best. He displayed an animalistic, macho, virile physique coupled with a desperate organic need for his wife, Stella. He was able to mesh the music with the words so that all we saw was Stanley. His voice was almost incidental except that the sound was plush and interconnected with his being so that the sound and the being became one.

As for the story: Blanche DuBois visits her sister, Stella, in New Orleans because she has lost the family home and her job as a school teacher. She meets Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, and the two immediately develop a disliking for each other. He is too crude and earthy for her. She is too phony and full of feminine airs for him. And Stella placates them both.

Blanche meets and hopes to marry one of Stanley’s poker buddies, Mitch, but the idea is shattered when Stanley shares the news with Mitch that Blanche was forced to leave the town of Laurel due to her immoral behavior with young men.

After Stanley takes a very pregnant Stella to the hospital, he returns home in the evening, finds himself alone with Blanche, and rapes her. Stella’s unwillingness to accept Blanche’s story leads Blanche into an abyss of despair. The inability of the three to live together finally incites Stella to have Blanche committed: a tragic fate for a woman unable to survive in an unkind world.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a classic play by Tennessee Williams. It is one of my favorite plays. The writing is poetic. In fact, if executed by a fine cast, the words become music. It is therefore a terrible burden on a composer to attempt to turn what is already music into music. I am surprised that the estate of Tennessee Williams authorized the endeavor. Yet although the resulting opera has merit, there is only one great “Streetcar Named Desire,” and it is the play by Tennessee Williams.

I believe that new operas can be more successful if the stories haven’t been told before so that the operas can stand on their own without comparison. The “Streetcar” opera follows the play’s story and includes Mr. Williams’ words.

Much like a singer, an actor’s spoken voice becomes an instrument of sound. It is the variation of color in the voice, for example, in Blanche’s Scene 6 monologue, that can bring an audience to tears. The actress can virtually become the character of Blanche as she tells Mitch the story of her gentle homosexual ex-husband who killed himself as a result of her unkind scrutiny, for which she feels responsible. The poetic words of the monologue don’t need music. The music in Previn’s score during the monologue only detracted from the monologue’s essence. It would take quite a composer to outdo Williams on Williams.

Although the singers performed eloquently, they could not reach us emotionally the way the great actors who have portrayed the same characters in the play have. Yet strangely, these singers were so expressive that at times they almost did — in spite of having to wade through the music to do it.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought more dimensions to Mitch than I have ever seen. Although his voice was on occasion slightly guttural on the vowels in words like “love,” for example, for the most part, his sound was up front and out in the hall much like his performance was. Raised in a crude environment, his Mitch remained the considerate son of an aged mother whose sympathetic, good-natured side mixed with his moral upbringing to make it impossible for him to accept Blanche as his wife. At the end of the opera, however, when Blanche was forced to leave her surroundings and was being led into her nightmarish hell, Mitch felt guilt and sorrow for Blanche because he had played a role in her disintegration. It was this empathy that Mitch displayed toward Blanche which was gratifying to watch and more evident in this opera than in the play due to Griffey’s sensitive portrayal.

Soprano Stacey Tappan sang Stella with ease and displayed a strong character with a freeness and willingness to execute any movement that would further the action. She made the audience understand her plight.

Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as Eunice was the character actor in this production. Although her voice had some noticeable vibrato, it boomed out to the rafters, and every time she came onstage, the energy level rose 100 degrees and we loved her.

The doctor, Robert Shampain, and the nurse, Cynthia Marty, somehow seemed visually miscast. He was somehow too slight of build or youthful to so quickly lure Blanche into his good graces, and the nurse didn’t exude enough intimidating authority. Cullen Gandy as the collector and Blanche’s ex-husband was perfect.

Brad Dalton’s direction was specific, detailed and creative. The minimalistic set included chairs, a table and a bed, with the orchestra placed upstage behind the singers, dynamically conducted by the young Evan Rogister.

This production from Lyric Opera of Chicago was cost-effective and diverged from the initial production, which had a traditional set and premiered in 1998 at the San Francisco Opera. 

The Stanley replicas who doubled as Stanley’s poker buddies began the action as the audience was being seated and during intermissions. There was no curtain. Only effective lighting brought us in and out of the action.

As for André Previn’s score, it seemed like a work in progress. I say that because I actually wanted to leave at the conclusion of Act 2 because I couldn’t weave the music with the characterizations to realize a work of art that was equal to or superior to the Williams play. The orchestration seemed like background music for the singers who were simply speaking on notes. Speech level singing came to mind, not really recitative, even though the performers were truly singing dialogue on notes, and sometimes the dialogue sounded mundane. Of course I wasn’t sitting with the play and libretto in front of me. But because I had put some of the dialogue to memory, I knew that the libretto followed the text of the play with some liberal variation.

The orchestral score seemed superior to the vocal score because at times, the two sopranos sounded like tweety birds due to the high tessitura which sometimes seemed stuck on one plane so that the vocal sound almost became annoying. I couldn’t even tell if the singers had quality voices even though I knew that they did. The composition just didn’t allow me to make the determination.

When Ryan McKinny was dramatic, his bass-baritone carried the drama. But Renée Fleming is a soprano known for her lyricism, and the high lyrical sound just didn’t work well with heightened hammered drama. It wasn’t her fault, though. She was wonderful. 

Modern operas are always filled with atonal dissonance, and this opera is no exception. But the dissonance in “Streetcar” seems amazingly appropriate. It is blended well with a bluesy jazzy feel and music reminiscent of Richard Strauss, George Gershwin, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg and Leonard Bernstein’s “Westside Story.” With strings, woodwinds and a brassy quality heavy on the trumpet and trombone, the orchestration sounds like 1940’s-era New Orleans mood music with voices imposed on top of it.

Renée Fleming

Before writing more about Miss Fleming, it was necessary for me to explain why the opera seems like a work in progress and doesn’t reach its potential until Act 3.

Fleming was marvelous throughout, but she was still singing like an opera singer performing for an audience — unable to touch us emotionally like an actor would until Act 3. This was due to the vocal score which fits her tessitura, not to her performance. Her glimmering voice was mesmerizing with some rich mezzo-like accents. But none of the music, not even the arias of the other characters, enabled the audience to stop, as in Mozart, and think: “Wow, that was glorious.” 

For “Streetcar” to succeed as an opera, the music must enhance the telling of the story or should add something new to Williams’ text. If Williams’ words are better said by an actor in the play than sung, and if the music does not add anything unique to the opera genre, then the opera cannot work. That is why a poetic classic like “A Streetcar Named Desire” is difficult to adapt as an opera.

Finally in Act 3, the opera came into its own. During the first two acts, I was envisioning Vivien Leigh, Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange as Blanche — especially Jessica Lange who created a multi-dimensional character with emotional depth and artistry.

But then in Act 3, the rape scene was musically charged and emotionally riveting. Both Blanche and Stanley were alive and real. And finally, finally Miss Fleming sang “I Can Smell the Sea Air,” and the sound was gorgeous. Previn had given her a memorable aria that allowed the audience to hear the beauty of her resonant sound.

So to me, this opera is a work in progress because to make it equivalent to Williams’ poetic play, the opera version of “Streetcar” should include more lush melodic harmonies on the level of Blanche’s last aria, which is competitive with the music of the great opera composers of the past. Although we may not have seen Blanche’s true madness, we saw her drifting off into an ethereal world where she was no longer in touch with reality.

When the nurse kept repeating, “These fingernails have to be trimmed,” I died a thousand deaths. And as Fleming sang, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Whoever you are . . . whoever you are” — Fleming finally became Blanche DuBois and reached us. She was magnificent. And that is when I realized that Williams, Previn and the librettist had finally created an opera.

Director: Brad Dalton
Conductor: Evan Rogister
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Costume Designer: Johann Stegmeir
Production: Lyric Opera of Chicago
Costumes: Provided by Washington National Opera
and Lyric Opera of Chicago

Critic’s Note: In deference to the composer and librettist, I need to write that my review is a review of the opera as it is, not as it could have been or could be. I realize that many factors contribute to a final composition. With a classic play like Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” when the words are music to begin with, it is difficult to insert the dialogue into the mouths of singers over an orchestration so that the words have the same impact they do in the play. Music has time signatures, and the length a note is held has an influence on the language. So if the word “perspiration” works in the play, for example, the same word held in the context of an operatic phrase could accentuate it quite differently so that it simply sounds out-of-place in the context of the opera. Alas, some of the words in the libretto sounded mundane with far too much focus on them.

Even translating an opera from one language to another is a cumbersome job because words and syllables do not always match the notes that must be sung. So attempting to match Tennessee Williams’ words with a score was no doubt a daunting compositional task for the composer and librettist.

I have read that the Williams estate had a permissions agreement to adapt the play to opera so that the opera would maintain the integrity of the play’s story and much of the text, which was adhered to by the producing company, the composer and the librettist. The conditions imposed on them therefore limited their creativity.

The opera would have been quite different with a libretto that did not have to follow the play’s text. It might have been less wordy, and the accents on the words might have been more adaptable to the singers’ voices. The text would not have been compared to the poetic dialogue of the play. And a better marriage between the libretto and the vocal and orchestral scores might have ensued. Even the breathing of the singers must be considered to create vocal lines that tell the story. 

So although I wrote that sometimes it is better to write new operas with plots that have never been told before so that the new operas will not be compared with the originals, it works to utilize an already existing story, but without attempting to create a carbon copy of the original by simply transferring the words to the different genre. If the original genre was successful, the opera genre should not have to compete. Each work should stand on its own.

Therefore, the opera “A Streetcar Named Desire” is what it is, and I have reviewed it as such. Had Previn and librettist Philip Littell started with a totally clean canvas except for the story, the result might have been quite different. 

However I am sure that both the estate and the composer and librettist were attempting to develop a work of art that the playwright would have approved of. Writers do not like their words altered. However in the case of opera, the writer or representative of the original work should have a knowledge of music to draw the most optimal parameters for the work being developed. If an opera is to be successful, there must be flexibility from genre to genre.

But by the same token, if the librettist is left to create his own dialogue and the play is as poetic as “Streetcar” — it seems futile to even try. How could any other words compete with those of Williams in the context of the same story?

So in essence, with “Streetcar,” it is probably impossible to please all the parties, so maybe it was an implausible idea on the part of the estate and the opera’s creative team to authorize the project in the first place.

However, if I didn’t know and love the play; if I hadn’t have put some of the dialogue to memory — I would have been very accepting of this opera. The singers were terrific actors with a superb director. Renée Fleming outdid herself vocally and physically, and even though she created a devastatingly tragic character, she seemed to love being on the stage throwing her all into the role just for us. She gave us a wonderful night at the theater to remember. So what could be wrong with that?     

Posted by: operatheaterink | May 23, 2014

Review: ‘Thaïs,’ Los Angeles Opera, May 23, 2014

Great Voices, Sets and Costumes: LA Opera’s ‘Thaïs’ Is a Pleaser.

Pläcido Domingo as Athanaël, Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.       Photo: Robert Millard

Plácido Domingo as Athanaël,
Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.
(Photo: Robert Millard)

SEEN MAY 17, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs” drew roaring applause and a standing ovation from an appreciative audience on opening night. And all of the commotion was centered on the performances of superstar Plácido Domingo as a baritonal Athanaël and world-renowned soprano Nino Machaidze as Thaïs. The rest of the singers seemed incidental to the audience, but in reality, they were all quite excellent. I must make note of the violinist who deserved a standing ovation for playing the harmonically melodic “Méditation.” Roberto Cani was the masterful musician who almost stole the show.

As for the story: Athanaël, a fourth-century Egyptian Cenobite monk, sets out on a mission to Alexandria to tame a sinful city and save its most beautiful courtesan, Thaïs. But once he has succeeded, he discovers his own earthly passions for her and despairs. Repenting takes a toll on her body, and she dies while he cries out in anguish.

This production — designed by Johan Engels, directed by Nicola Raab, and imported from the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki and the Gothenburg Opera, Sweden — is elaborate and visual. A revolving stage keeps the audience watching. Whether looking at the principal singers ascending a spiral staircase; whether eyeing a theater bedecked with red draperies or the intricately decorated residence of Thaïs; whether viewing an oasis in the desert or a monastery garden — the meticulously executed set changes and visions are spectacular.

One minute we seem to be viewing an Egyptian harem during the Byzantine era; the next, an apartment at the turn of the 20th century in Paris à la the film, “Gigi.”

Engels’ costumes are exquisite no matter what period represented. Thaïs’s gold-beaded gown with a headdress and birdlike appendages is breathtaking, then equaled by a white-satin gown with gold ribbing and a crown bedecked with diamonds. Bright colored hues denote the lustier scenes in contrast with whites which signify purity. 

The sentiments communicated are not unlike those in Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”: Venus and the bacchanal versus Elisabeth and purity. A tug and a pull — the characters are drawn in opposing directions in both operas. With a libretto by Louis Gallet, “Thaïs” is based on a novel by Anatole France.

As for the music, “Thaïs” is rarely performed, yet Renée Fleming has revived it to prominence. Although the music is at times inspiring, the arias are not plentiful and are included as part of the action. The most noteworthy melody is the “Méditation,” an orchestral intermezzo for violin and harp. The motif is repeated after being introduced, and each time it surfaces with vocality, it takes the opera to a higher plane.

Domingo sang Athanaël’s aria, “Voilà donc la terrible cite,” with strength and passion. At 73, his voice and technique remain strong; his charisma, powerful.

Yet Athanaël is labeled a baritone while Domingo is known as a tenor. So is Domingo a tenor singing baritonal roles now? Or is he a baritone? He still sounds like a tenor to me who has chosen not to sing the high notes. Does it matter? I don’t know. Would the composer mind? I don’t know. Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” is either a mezzo-soprano or soprano, and the only thing I care about is the caliber of her voice. Domingo began his career as a baritone, then developed his high tones. So as his voice ages, he is wise to simply sing roles where the tessitura is comfortable. His informed decision has enabled him to continue his career indefinitely to our delight. As Athanaël, he made up for any negligible losses of youthful ease with a strong, centered and secure vocal and physical characterization that defied age and made us, especially those of us over 60, want to stand up and cheer for him. When we see him passionately refusing to succumb to the effects of time, determined to maintain a high level of artistry by overcoming any obstacles — he motivates us to strive a little harder and do a little better, for we feel privileged to be in the same room with him as we watch him perform. Although there are many rising tenors on the horizon, so far, Domingo’s kingly crown remains untarnished.

As Thaïs, soprano Nino Machaidze proved her vocal agility from low notes to high. Her “Dis-moi que je suis belle” drew a well-deserved applause. Her lustrous voice was complemented with her grace of movement and beauty. The two final duets were memorable and moving.

Bass Valentin Anikin as Palémon had one of the best voices of the evening. In an unthankful role, he should not be overlooked for the unique quality of his sound. Tenor Paul Groves as Nicias added stature to the proceedings. LA Opera did some luxury casting with mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic as Albine. The mezzo gave a stand-out performance earlier in the season as Carmen.

Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Kihun Yoon sang with gusto. And the LA Opera Orchestra was led skillfully under the baton of Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier.

Yet in spite of all the raves this “Thaïs” well deserves, I still found something lacking that I was unable to describe. What makes opera so enthralling for me is that I can watch different singers portray one particular character over and over again without tiring. The more I hear and see an opera, the more I want to see and hear it. The melodies become more memorable for me, and I find the different interpretations enlightening. So after the LA Opera performance, I went home and clicked onto YouTube where I discovered Renée Fleming singing “Thaïs” with Thomas Hampson. I watched the final duet and felt the needed poignancy. “Thaïs” premiered in 1894 Paris. Fleming and Hampson mastered the French accent, the French sound, and, most importantly, the emotionalism and style:  

But I don’t want to detract from the many fine attributes of this deliciously innovative Domingo-Machaidze “Thaïs.”

Plácido Domingo is an amazing artist to be admired for his unheard of vocal longevity. Machaidze is a star on the rise. And this “Thaïs” is a production to be seen, remembered, savored, and revived.

Conductor: Patrick Fournillier
Director: Nicola Raab
Scenery Design: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Johan Engels
Lighting Designer: Linus Fellbom
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

 Nino Machaidze.                              Photo: Robert Millard

Nino Machaidze.
(Photo: Robert Millard)

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