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November 7, 2011

Monday Musings: More on the debut of Lyric Opera Baltimore

Baltimore doesn't like to part with beloved, long-established people, places and things.

When the Baltimore Opera Company folded under the weight of debt and poor judgment, a number of people wanted very much to bring it back -- or at least something very much like it. They succeeded in what has to be record time.

For a community, still gripped by the Great Recession, to see grand opera back onstage at the Lyric only three years after the previous company's unexpected swan song is an extraordinary achievement. Everyone involved has to feel great after this weekend's debut by Lyric Opera Baltimore with two performances of "La Traviata."

As I wrote previously, there was a lot a deja vu in the air Friday night. The look and feel of things was much like the old days. Just about the only thing missing in the lobby was ...

the woman selling in a sing-song voice "li-BRET-ti."

The holdovers from Baltimore Opera are relatively few, but they are exceedingly important, starting with Jim Harp, who was such a key artistic figure in the old organization. The Lyric wisely hired him after the liquidation to help keep opera alive in the historic theater.

Harp had been as much a public face for Baltimore Opera as its longtime general director Michael Harrison, but without the negative baggage. He was exactly the connective thread the Lyric needed if something like the old company was ever going to return. (I don't think there was ever a chance that something totally unlike the old company was ever going to be considered.)

Some dynamic folks from the previous board also made the transition to Lyric Opera Baltimore, providing the base for what could be a healthy, sustainable company. Money will still be essential, of course, if not as much as the old company needed, since administrative and production costs have all been reduced. There still will have to be a solid financial framework, with big time donors stepping up regularly, so there can be future growth and, eventually (I hope), risk-taking.

For now, Lyric Opera is going to steer a conservative course, leaving it to Peabody Opera Theatre, which will have a presence at the Lyric for the first time, to spice things up -- Stravinsky's brilliant work "The Rake's Progress" will be performed by the conservatory company later this month.

"La Traviata" proved that Lyric Opera can deliver the goods. It was not exactly a life-changing production, but it proved effective on balance, thanks largely to Elizabeth Futral's assured, absorbing portrayal of the title role. From her defiant "Sempre libera" to a riveting last act, the soprano showed what it means to burrow into a role. Another plus: Her voice sounded stronger, steadier and warmer than when I last heard her.

The other principals disappointed, especially tenor Eric Margiore, who favored one volume and tone color. But he and baritone Jason Stearns got the job done. So did the rest of the cast, sometimes with a good deal of color -- notably from Rolando Sanz (Gastone), Coleen Daly (Flora) and Brendan Cooke (Grenvil).

I wish conductor Steven White had left a stronger imprint on the score. More nuances of tempo and dynamics would have done wonders. Still, he did some impressive work, especially in the finale to Act 2, which was shaped with a good deal of dramatic weight.  Some fine work by the BSO in the pit all evening; the orchestra will surely get even more smoothly into the operatic mode if the association with the new company continues.

The staging, directed by Crystal Manich, needed a lot more flair and imagination than the grating explosion of laughter in the opening party scene (or the clumsy burst of dancing in the subsequent party scene). And, for all the surface prettiness of the scenery and costumes, the production looked like a moth-balled idea of what opera should be.

That said, the significance of this weekend cannot be overlooked. Against the odds, Lyric Opera Baltimore has emerged to resume a valued tradition of filling a great old theater with a noble art form.

PHOTO (by Sharon Redmond and Rich Riggins) COURTESY OF LYRIC OPERA BALTIMORE


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:28 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Lots of concern about the folding of Opera Ireland recently and given the state of recession here one wouldn't hold your breath for any reemergence. In the meantime Wexford Opera Festival seems to be have been very successful this year

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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 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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