Opera Philadelphia

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I was able to catch a performance of Opera Philadelphia’s production of Nabucco, conducted by Music Director Corrado Rovaris in a production designed and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger. It was the first time this opera had been presented by this company and was cause for celebration in this Verdi bi-centennial year.

This was a rich and interesting experience, an adventure well worth taking. I salute Opera Philadelphia and their co-producers (Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera) for taking the risk involved and for successfully bringing it to fruition. The production approach involved framing the opera within a story about the premiere of the opera at La Scala in 1842, the idea being that Nabucco actually had a political impact by spurring Italians to revolt against the oppressive control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which held Italy in its grip at that time. The famous chorus “Va, pensiero” became the unofficial national anthem and Verdi eventually became a kind of folk hero of the Risorgimento movement.

During the overture, there were supers dressed as Austrian soldiers who came down the aisles of the theater and opera patrons of the period who were ushered across the stage (?) and into one of the theater’s boxes from which they observed the opera itself and were sometimes lit and interacted with the event onstage. Because the performance took place at the Academy of Music, which itself was somewhat modeled on the design of La Scala, one had a solid sense of the period.

On the whole, I found that the framing device, while an interesting nod to the historical significance of the opera, was not developed fully enough to justify its inclusion. The set-up (Austrian soldiers in the theater, opera patrons in 1840’s clothing) was a gloss on the reality it was trying to portray–how could it have been otherwise? But more than that, there was no possibility to construct a satisfying drama within the framing device–again, how could that have been possible? So, by headlining the framing device but not being able to fulfill the expectations it spawned, the concept remained on the level of historical information–not uninteresting but also not inherently theatrical–leaving the opera itself in a sort of no-man’s land of existence. Was the opera proper a foil to the framing device? Or was it a theatrical reality in and of itself? Only at the very end, during the curtain calls, was a real connection made between the singers and the frame characters, when the prima donna enacted a kind of protest against the patrons in the opera box (who were presumably Austrian?) by throwing the bouquet of flowers she had been honored with back at the patrons. To have this one action be the culmination of the conceit struck me as a weak, and late, attempt to tie everything together–although it did motivate a reprise of the famous “Va pensiero” chorus quite nicely. What it also supplied was a surprise, which was terrific. Sadly, it upstaged the opera…

The other interesting thing was the effect the framing device had on the actual opera. It motivated a sort of historical re-production in terms of the scenery, which put on display a nearly lost art of two-dimensional scenery. The program notes even mentioned that the designs were painted by one of the artisans from La Scala itself–and this was a lovely notion. The scenery was colorful, featuring false perspective and other techniques of simulating reality in theatrical language. The clothing seemed to echo that stylistic approach to some degree.

The question that kept arising in my mind was whether the singers were instructed to employ the acting style of the period. And this was where the aesthetic confusion lay for me, because I saw no potent use of the “attitudes” that I associate with the acting style of that period. It struck me as a sort of slightly heightened naturalism. The problem with this approach (if it indeed was the directorial approach, I could not tell) is that it came across to me simply as poor, provincial level acting. And this was a real blow to believing in the opera itself.

I have directed Nabucco once (see photos of that production on this website) and fully appreciate how difficult it is to pull off successfully. The dramaturgy is riddled with contrivance, it is extremely difficult to cast–especially the roles of Abigaille and Zaccaria, and a great Nabucco is also not easy to find. To assemble singers capable of the vocal demands and who are good actors is a very tall order. Opera Philadelphia certainly found a capable group. Morris Robinson, as Zaccaria, displayed a truly distinctive sound with a timbre that seemed to match the grandeur of the role. Ismaele was unusually strong for this critical but underdeveloped role; Adam Diegel’s sound was clarion and heroic and he cut a great figure onstage. In a very real way, he showed the most distinction as a singing-actor. I wish I could be more positive about the rest of the cast. Perhaps it was the concept itself, in its conceit that this was the premiere performance at La Scala, that unwittingly raised vocal expectations beyond what could be realized by this wonderful company? The chorus should never go unmentioned in this opera and they were absolutely splendid, delivering power and beauty in equal measure, spurred on by the eloquent, crisp and rich conducting by Maestro Rovaris.

All in all, an interesting night at the opera house and kudos to all the artists involved. It made me more deeply consider the technique of supplying a framing device (an opera within an opera, a dream, etc.) and how such a device can really enhance the main story…or not. When a production stimulates this kind of response it is well worth the effort and I am thankful for having seen it.

 

Glimmerglass Festival

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A few weeks back I made the beautiful trek up to Glimmerglass Festival to see a couple of the productions (unfortunately not able to see all the offerings). Experiencing opera of this quality in an intimate theater surrounded by such natural beauty is a rare treat. I had last been there in 2008, when I directed the US premiere of DAS LIEBESVERBOT (an interesting piece, visit the portfolio page to view photos) and I really miss this wonderful company and hope to return soon.

The first night I saw Cesca Zambello’s clean, focused production of DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER. I make it a habit to avoid reading the program before performances because I like the experience of not knowing the names of the performers in advance. Many times, I recognize them from previous outings but occasionally I am both stunned by a performer and have no idea who they are. This was the case with the Senta. She was extraordinary and I could not for the life of me place her. The voice projected like a laser beam wrapped in velvet. The soft singing was floaty and gorgeous. Her acting was totally committed and energized in just the right way. I thought “Glimmerglass has made a stunning discovery. Who IS this wunder-soprano?” Turned out to be Melody Moore, with whom I had worked briefly at CCM a few years back–but I did not recognize her in the slightest. For me, she was the ideal Senta and I know she will be highly sought after for lyric Wagnerian roles very, very soon–or what’s this world coming to? Fantastic. This is not to diminish the excellence of the rest of the cast, but Melody truly stood out.

The following day another nice surprise, the final dress of UN GIORNO DI REGNO, Verdi’s first comedy. Sparkling music not-stop, but also lovely bel canto segments. It was the kind of production which made me wonder why this piece is not done a little more often. Certainly the plot is very thin and the various turns of events seem clichéd and contrived but equally true is that this piece stands up very well in comparison to many an occasionally-performed Donizetti opera. The two women in the cast, Jacqueline Echols and Ginger Costa-Jackson, a mezzo-soprano who sounded to me like a soprano, were absolutely stellar. Jackie is a recent grad from the CCM Artist Diploma program but this was her first role which demanded comic spark and verve–and she showed a very different side of herself, which I hope she continues to explore. Ginger lit up the stage and dominated every scene in which she appeared, singing beautifully even when being asked to perform some very physically demanding action. Andy Wilkowski was his usual excellent self, both very funny and humane. Beautifully conducted by Joe Colaneri, GF’s new Music Director–buoyant with teeth and grit.

The production by Christian Räth was bright and zany and really helped keep this thin piece alive in a great way. The farcical style started to wear thin after a while and I started to wonder if there was any possibility to deliver some depth in order to more fully appreciate the farce–but I am not sure if the piece would support that. Also, it was beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel, one of my favorite lighting designers.

Finally, got a look at CAMELOT and enjoyed the lovely production. Especially strong was the Guenevere Andriana Chuchman, she was riveting, humane and spunky in just the right measure as was Nathan Gunn as Lancelot. David Pittsinger brought an unusual level of vocal heft to Arthur, which was actually a little disconcerting at first but rewarding in many moments.

I love Glimmerglass in so many ways: casual yet serious, the intimate theater which has enough scope to embrace the power of opera and the real sense of artists as a family. A superb place for opera and under Cesca Zambello’s leadership it is flourishing.

How have your experiences at Glimmerglass been?

Opera Theater of St. Louis

At the end of June I took a trip over to St. Louis to see the new opera, CHAMPION, and visit old friends. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had not been to this company for 20 years (!) and it was just as lovely as when I directed IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE there in 1994. In fact, it was like jumping into a time machine. Everything was in place: the tent, the manicured landscape, the theater itself, the wonderful esprit du corps and the talented young artists, of whom around five had been former students of mine at CCM–it was great to see them blossom on a professional stage.

CHAMPION was marvelous in all regards. The casting itself was a work of art. Musically, Terrence Blanchard has written an excellent first opera. The use of jazz idiom was organic, not trendy, and it alternated with music of unusual quality and depth. Very hard to pin it down–which is a good sign. The production could not have been better and Jim Robinson overcame the few langeurs in the story as it presently stands by keeping things afloat with visual activity. George Manahan, with whom I will be doing DON GIOVANNI in Philadelphia next spring, conducted beautifully despite working with a contingent of jazz musicians unaccustomed to following a conductor. I look forward to this piece having a successful, much deserved, “after life”.

I was also able to attend a performance of THE KISS by Smetna, which I had never seen onstage. The revelation here was Corinne Winters, of whom I had heard and read much but had never seen in performance. She is a marvel. Gorgeous, rich sound and a compelling actress with whom I hope to work some day. The rest of the cast was strong and the production of this charming but dramatically thin piece was visually slick and clean.

Opera Theater of St. Louis is one of our treasures and I look forward to spending many a lovely evening there–and hopefully to returning to direct a production soon.

“Powder Her Face” at Opera Philadelphia

June, 2013

While I was visiting family back east, I was able to catch a performance of Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face”, a chamber opera written in 1995 but having its Philadelphia premiere in this production. At the Kimmel Center, it was presented in the Perelman Theater, an intimate and lovely space, which was perfect for this opera.

Opera Philadelphia, as it is now known, is thriving under its new leader, David Devan. There is also an interesting relationship with the Curtis Institute of Music under the enterprising leadership of Mikael Eliasen which contributes to the recent vibrancy of this company. The programming is much more adventurous, as witnessed by this rep choice, and the audience seems to be responding very well. David and his team are taking a measured and responsible approach to stimulating this fairly conservative audience and so far the results are really impressive.

The production depicted the opera in a very straight forward manner, allowing the subject matter to speak for itself.  The cast was led by the superlative Patricia Schuman, who replaced Nancy Gustafson (who had to withdraw for health reasons) on very short notice. She looked perfect and sounded fantastic. The other standout in the cast was Ashley Emerson, whose brilliant coloratura was also beautiful in its timbre. The music is very distinctive: eclectic, vibrant, irreverent and free-wheeling but under complete artistic control at the same time. It is an exhuberant piece, masterfully composed–and very difficult. The orchestra was led beautifully by Music Director Corrado Rovaris, who obtained an immaculate reading that was also full of life. Very well done.

The piece begs the questions: are we merely to feel sympathy for an older, dying woman, who is perhaps filled with regret for past indiscretions? Are we to be titillated and/or shocked by her past behavior (not)? There are hints of a social critique of the upper class–is the piece about the revenge of the middle class? Or the brutal envy of the middle class for those with untold wealth? As the central figure faced her impending death, the music had such overwhelming power that seemed only fitting for significant tragedy, not suited to anything as banal or superficial as what the overt level of the story seems to be about. There clearly is meant to be a more faceted, deep meaning. I look forward to encountering the piece again–and hopefully to directing it some day.

Most importantly, the main impression I was left with was that of a daring company, exploring edgy repertoire in an intimate theater. Who could ask for more?

August 2010

It’s been a little while since my last post.

This past year a new production of CARMEN at Boston Lyric Opera (November, 2009), then a design of SCHICCHI/ANGELICA at Miami University (November), teaching at Washington National Opera (December), an interesting triple bill at Portland Opera (March, 2010): IL COMBATTIMENTO DI TANCREDI E CLORINDA, BALLO DELLE INGRATE and TROUBLE IN TAHITI; closed with a new production of OF MICE AND MEN at CCM (May). -more below-

Just returned from Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara teaching acting and directing a Scenes Showcase.

Next, off to Vianden Festival in Luxembourg for more teaching.

A busy year coming up. First, a new production of IL BARBIERE at Indiana University (September).

Then a number of operas for the first time: designing and directing CENDRILLON at Miami University (November), CARDILLAC at Opera Boston (February, 2011), EL AMOR BRUJO/LA VIDA BREVE at Manhattan School of Music (April) and GIULIO CESARE AT CCM (May).

July 2008

Returned from Glimmerglass Opera and his production of DAS LIEBESVERBOT, some early reviews are in. James Sohre for OPERA TODAY writes: “Nicholas Muni directed with imagination, and generated excitement and dramatic interest from a routine distillation of a romantic triangle plot that does not have all that much to inspire…he moved the many large scenes around in a meaningful and efficient way, all the while instilling good character interaction. And a palpable sense of fun.” And Stephen Landesmann from the Ithica Journal: “The Glimmerglass production that opened last weekend is the first fully staged production in America, and was a hit. The altered re-setting in 1950s Italy by director Nicholas Muni and designer John Conklin was on the whole quite clever.”

Nic is preparing several upcoming projects, such as THE LOVE FOR THREE ORANGES, a re-mount of his THE TURN OF THE SCREW and POSTCARD FROM MORROCO.

April 2008

Nic just returned from Toronto, where he revived his production of PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE at the Canadian Opera Company in their wonderful new theater, the Four Seasons Center. Christopher Hoile of EyeWeekly wrote: “Elusive is an adjective always used about Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera Pelléas et Mélisande, but in the Canadian Opera Company’s current production a first-rate cast, intriguing design and insightful direction bring out the work’s strange beauty and make it dramatically compelling. This is the first time this critic has been so drawn into this opera’s world of mystery and half-light. Debussy basically set Maurice Maeterlinck’s influential 1893 symbolist play of the same name, with a few excisions, to music. In both, all the characters sense, even in their happiest moments, that they are acting out a predetermined destiny. Director Nicholas Muni’s great insight is to allow the three principal characters at least the illusion they are acting of their own free will.”  John Keillor, of the National Post, wrote: The way Pelléas and Mélisande distantly relate towards each other makes no romantic sense, but feels completely right. And when Golaud murders Pelléas out of jealousy, it also makes perfect romantic sense, in a way that prompts the viewer to want to scrap romanticism entirely. Debussy probably wanted that effect…it all feels truthful in its poised, psychological aggression and its ghostlier demarcations. The overall morbidity seems to be speaking to the audience directly about what our civilized natures allow us to understand about ourselves.”

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