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October 26, 2010

Opera Vivente opens season with uneven "Lucy of Lammermoor"

In less than 24 hours over the weekend, I had two operatic experiences in Baltimore. Neither left me fully satisfied.

In the case of Baltimore Opera Theatre's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday night at the Hippodrome, a deficient orchestra caused considerable damage; there were some strong elements onstage, but not quite enough to outweigh the provincial ones.

On Sunday afternoon at Emmanuel Episcopal, Opera Vivente's "Lucy of Lammermoor" (Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" sung in English) had its assets, but was substantially hindered by a problematic tenor and a cramped, mostly static staging.

Both productions, though, offered an impressive soprano in the title role. Vivente's heroine, Michelle Seipel, demonstrated considerable vocal agility and style on Sunday. She added interesting embellishments in her Act 1 aria and negotiated the famous mad scene with apparent fearlessness. A little more tonal warmth and a little less vibrato would have been welcome, but this was still an admirable effort that met the bel canto challenges quite handsomely. Likewise, a little more dramatic nuance would have been welcome, but Seipel created a substantive portrayal nonetheless.

Frederic Rey was

a pale match for the role of Edgar, musically and dramatically. While I admired his effort to produce an Italianate ardor, what came through was the effort. The tenor simply lacked the solidity of tone and, except for a few welcome soft phrases, the ease of projection to carry off the assignment.

John Brandon, as Henry Ashton, sounded a bit dry at times, but, at his best, produced abundant heft and color. Christopher Austin, as Raymond, did generally solid work. Jennifer Blades was as reliable and stylish as ever in the small role of Alice. Yoni Rose revealed promise as Norman. Peter Drackley sang efficiently as Arthur, but needed much subtler acting skills. The chorus more or less got the job done. For the most part, the small orchestra held up firmly. The score (complete with the often, and understandably, cut Wolf Crag's scene) was conducted by Jed Gaylin with a good balance of propulsion and rhythmic elasticity.

Vivente founder/general director John Bowen often puts a vigorous new spin on an opera; unusual productions became something of a company trademark over the past dozen years. And when he takes an offbeat path, the results can be engaging. Here, he took a traditional route. No updating or deconstruction of the plot, no strange moves or costumes -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But even a conventional approach needs a shot of involving theatrical fire. 

Too often, singers just assumed the old-fashioned, stand-and-sing position for opera; the choristers, in particular, assembled in group formation, looking like they were waiting to have their picture taken.  Some stuffy costumes and thick wigs didn't help matters. Neither did a set design (Thomas Bumblauskas) that reduced an already small stage to a narrowly focused area, draped by ragged cloths. This might have been an attempt to emphasize the frayed, confined world that lovely, unlucky Lucy is trapped in, but it just restricted, even stifled the action.

I've lost track of how many Vivente productions made use of the aisles in the hall. Here was an occasion when such extra space could have come in handy, but it wasn't used. In the mad scene, for example, it might have added greatly to the theatricality to have Lucy wander in through the audience, rather than enter from the rear of a crowded stage and maneuver her way to the front.

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Gabe Dinsmoor)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:21 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

Comments

Thanks for the preview and the photo of splendid costumes. I will see the performance on Saturday this week. Just regarding business of bringing action in via the aisle through the audience: That's a device that really adds to the experience, but it's being used a lot now by many companies. I wonder if OV decided to skip it this time around deliberately. If we see action in the aisles too often, it could itself become tiresome.

Tim, I'm confused. Surely this production of Lucia, which sounds like it was somewhat amateurish and dull: "Frederic Rey was a pale match for the role of Edgar, musically and dramatically ..." "Here, he [director Bowen] took a traditional route. No updating or deconstruction of the plot, no strange moves or costumes -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But even a conventional approach needs a shot of involving theatrical fire."
"Too often, singers just assumed the old-fashioned, stand-and-sing position for opera; the choristers, in particular, assembled in group formation, looking like they were waiting to have their picture taken. Some stuffy costumes and thick wigs didn't help matters. Neither did a set design ... that reduced an already small stage to a narrowly focused area, draped by ragged cloths." couldn't have been produced by the same person you quoted in Sunday's article on opera in Baltimore? "(Bowen, for example, likens the Chesapeake and Figaro troupes to "a bunch of students putting on a show")" If so, it sounds as though persons who live in glass houses ought not to be throwing stones.

I saw the closing night of Opera Vivente's "Lucy of Lammermoor" last night, and the production as a whole was much better than the impression created by this review of another night. Lucy's Mad Scene was not as cramped by the stage as I thought it would be, and OV even made the most of stage depth that I didn't know it had before. The so-called small orchestra was actually one of the larger ensembles I've seen in that performance space and very exciting to hear. Cast was very strong and we had an excellent, well-acted Lucy in Michelle Seipel. (Other opera literature claims that the Wolf's Crag or tower ruin scene is a vital part of the drama, and people get upset when it's omitted.)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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