November 20, 2012

Peabody Opera Theatre shows off promising talent in 'Don Giovanni'

The emergence of Lyric Opera Baltimore last year was probably the biggest news in the city's cultural scene, but the simultaneous development of a collaboration between the Peabody Institute and the Modell/Lyric Performing Arts Center ranked right up there.

The deal meant that, for the first time, Peabody Opera Theatre could present some of its work in a full-sized venue, providing a valuable learning experience for voice students, not to mention the conservatory's orchestra.

The inaugural venture came out of what, for Baltimore, constitutes left field -- Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."

This year's choice would be considered right down the middle in most places, but Mozart's "Don Giovanni" was last staged at the Lyric in 1999, so it seemed almost novel to see it there over the weekend. (The old Baltimore Opera Company was remarkably Mozart-averse.)

Sunday afternoon's performance was, on balance, a good showing for Peabody, musically and theatrically.

Roger Brunyate, the recently retired, longtime head of the opera program, jumped back into the thick of things to direct, and his professional touch and thoughtfulness could be detected throughout.

His concept notably included a wound for Don Giovanni that, Amfortas-like, never healed. (Brunyate credited a recent Salzburg production with giving him the idea to have the antihero wounded in his opening scene duel with the Commendatore.)

The device intriguingly suggested that Don Giovanni knew his time was running out, long before a certain statue turned up in his doorway.

If a couple of questionable details also popped up in this staging -- Donna Elvira stabbing a portrait of Don Giovanni with giant hairpins was more Carol Burnett than Lorenzo DaPonte, for example, and having her join a nunnery early on seemed a wee bit odd -- Brunyate ensured that the action flowed easily and effectively.

Aiding that flow was ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

November 4, 2012

Lyric Opera Baltimore offers comfy 'Boheme' to open second season

Call it retro night at the opera.

A comfy, traditional production of Puccini’s evergreen and irresistible “La Boheme” opened Lyric Opera Baltimore’s second season Friday.

The modest-scale sets would have looked dated in the 1960s, but won applause from the sizable audience at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

And the stage direction was so literal and sensible that it seemed almost radical, given the common practice these days of updating, re-examining and re-interpreting well-worn operas.

If there was a museum quality to the visual side of things, the music got a fresh enough spin from the sturdy, spirited cast.

Anna Samuil gave a sympathetic performance as the tender-hearted, consumptive seamstress Mimi, who, like her fellow Parisian bohemians, struggles with issues of love and livelihood.

The soprano’s fast vibrato gave her tone intriguing coloring, and, at her best, her phrasing communicated vividly. There were beautiful touches in her Act 1 aria, but she breezed through its closing, recitative-like lines in a curiously impersonal manner.

Samuil made up for that, though, in Act 3, with gorgeous, long-breathed sculpting of the last lines of “Donde lieta usci.” This was exquisitely poetic singing.

As Mimi’s devoted, if conflicted, lover Rodolfo, tenor Georgy Vasiliev offered a nicely ringing tone. His phrasing tended toward ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 27, 2012

'Don Giovanni' gets stylish revival from Washington National Opera

All things considered, the opening of Washington National Opera's season is quite strong, especially in terms of that elusive, hard to pin down concept known as style.

"Anna Bolena" features a great deal of stylish singing, conducting and orchestra playing. Same for "Don Giovanni."

The Mozart work is presented in a revival of the 2007 John Pascoe production, which looks simultaneously elegant and hip, complemented by imaginative costumes that give off a time-traveling hint of a "Dr. Who" episode.

Some of Pascoe's stage pictures -- a moody church scene, for example -- are as enchanting in their own way as the music (Donald Edmund Thomas' refined lighting is a significant star in this staging).

If the director gets carried away with comic stuff in a spot or two (one of them when Leporello pops up in a priest's outfit, fake nose and glasses during the "La ci darem la mano" duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina), it's easy enough to go along.

Even things like ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 26, 2012

'Anna Bolena' raises its head at Washington National Opera

There’s nothing like those Tudors and their affairs to provide gripping, juicy drama, as the recent Showtime series reconfirmed.

Donizetti found enough fodder in the intrigues of that royal court to fashion a trilogy of vivid operas in the 1830s: “Maria Stuarda” (staged by the late Baltimore Opera Company in 2007), “Roberto Devereux” (this seems to get the least attention these days) and “Anna Bolena.”

The latter, returning to the Washington National Opera repertoire after an absence of 19 years, is quite the gem.

With a fine libretto by Felice Romani, who lightly applied a seasoning of historic and poetic license, the work tells the sad tale of Anne Boelyn, the queen destined for the block after Henry VIII finds her lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour more appealing.

Donizetti’s score intensifies the familiar story through remarkable melodic richness and refined orchestral coloring.

The WNO production, which comes from the Dallas Opera and is directed by Stephen Lawless, starts off on a ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 21, 2012

Modell Lyric announces $1 million pledge from Berman Foundation to support opera

Six weeks before the opening of Lyric Opera Baltimore's second season, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric announced a $1 million pledge in support of opera from the Baltimore-based Sandra and Malcolm Berman Charitable Foundation, Inc.

"It is one of the largest gifts in the Modell Lyric's history," said Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the center. "We're thrilled to receive it.

"This is a four-year commitment that started last season. We are announcing it now in conjunction with Lyric Opera Baltimore's grand production of 'La Boheme,'" Richmond said.

Performances are Nov. 2 and 4.The season continues with a gala concert in April and a production of "Rigoletto" in May.

The Berman gift, which will help underwrite a grand opera production each season, as well as support opera education programs and capital improvements, has been acknowledged inside the Modell Lyric with the naming of the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Grand Foyer.

The Bermans were subscribers for several years to the old Baltimore Opera Company, which folded in 2009.

"When that happened, we wanted to do whatever we could to help opera come back to Baltimore," said Sandra Berman, who is a member of the Lyric Opera Foundation board of trustees.

"We support a lot of other things, too, but we think that opera is extremely important in Baltimore. People shouldn't have to go to Washington or New York for opera. They should have top quality opera right here," Berman said.

When Lyric Opera Baltimore emerged as part of the Modell Lyric, the Bermans attended the company's 2011-2012 inaugural season of "La Traviata," The Marriage of Figaro" and "Faust."

"We thought the productions were ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 13, 2012

Francesca Zambello named artistic director of Washington National Opera

When Francesca Zambello was named artistic advisor to Washington National Opera last year, after the company became an official part of the Kennedy Center, a widely held assumption was that she would eventually emerge as artistic director.

The assumption proved correct.

On Thursday morning, WNO made it official that Zambello, one of the opera world's most respected and in-demand stage directors, has been named WNO's artistic director, effective Jan. 1.

She joins an administrative team that includes Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, WNO executive director Michael Mael and WNO music director Philippe Auguin. She will also direct one production per season, as well as oversee the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and the American Opera Initiative, a project recently launched by the company to commission new works.

In a statement, Zambello said that she will aim to maintain "the high standards set by my predecessors" and "will respect what appeals to our long-time patrons and supporters while at the same time ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

August 7, 2012

'The Rake's Progress' gets potent staging from Wolf Trap Opera

Since the death of Puccini, few operas have established a foothold in the standard repertoire. "The Rake's Progress" is one of them.

The 1951 piece boasts a prismatic, rhythmically alive score by Stravinsky, in his most inventive neoclassical mode, and a clever, exceedingly literate libretto by one of the 20th century's greatest poets, W. H. Auden, and his partner, Chester Kallman.

The work, inspired by Hogarth's drawings, operates on various levels. It's an old-fashioned morality tale, with Faustian overtones (and a good deal of wicked comedy), demonstrating how laziness and greed can destroy love and honor.

There's also an argument here for simple country values versus the desensitizing effects of modern urban life, with its commercialism, materialism and hucksterism.

All of this can be richly savored in what easily ranks among ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera

June 26, 2012

Christina Scheppelmann to Oman, after artistic operations post at Washington National Opera

UPDATE 6/26: Word is that Christina Scheppelmann will become CEO of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman.

Christina Scheppelmann, the highly skilled, broadly knowledgeable and genial director of artistic operations for Washington National Opera, will depart Nov. 30 after a decade on the job.

Scheppelmann, hired by former WNO general director Placido Domingo, has been involved in putting together repertoire and casts, launching new projects (such as the American Opera Initiative), overseeing management of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, etc. According to the company's announcement Thursday, Scheppelmann will disclose "her forthcoming plans at a later date."

She is quoted as saying: “I owe thanks to ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 13, 2012

Washington National Opera sets first season of American Opera Initiatives

Washington National Opera's laudable commissioning project, American Opera Initiative, will kick off in the fall with the premiere of three 20-minute works, followed in summer 2013 by an hour-long piece.

All of the operas deal with American characters and subject matter; all will be performed in English.

The premiere trio will take place on Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center. "The Game of Hearts," with music by Douglas Pew and libretto by Dara Weinberg, is described as "a ...


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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 22, 2012

UPDATE: Metropolitan Opera changes position; Opera News will cover Met

UPDATE 4 p.m. Tuesday: The Metropolitan Opera has backed down; Opera News will continue to cover Met performances after all. FULL PRESS RELEASE BELOW

First, the disclosure.

I have been a correspondent for Opera News for something like 25 years -- a length of time I would not ordinarily acknowledge, since it raises hideous suggestions about my age; but with Internet searches so easy, no point in hiding the fact.

Now for the reaction to the story that broke over night in the New York Times: Opera News, a longtime magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, will "stop reviewing the Metropolitan Opera, a policy prompted by the Met’s dissatisfaction over negative critiques.”

This follows close on the heels of another worrisome incident -- WQXR removed a post from its blog that was critical of the Met, a move prompted by the institution in question. (There was also the case last year of the popular, non-critical blog that offered very smart guesses about future Met seasons -- that one was shut down, too, at the Met's request.)

The cyber-sphere has been abuzz all night -- the readers of the fabulous La Cieca apparently don't sleep at all -- about this latest manifestation of what appears to be a severe case of thin skin disease on the part of Met general manager Peter Gelb. I might as well get in on the discussion, too.

When confronted with fresh evidence of this nature, the first thing I think of is ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 6, 2012

Vividly sung, intriguingly staged 'Nabuuco' from Washington National Opera

With “Nabucco,” his third opera, Verdi’s career truly began. He would go on to do much finer work, but his talent and potential are unmistakable here.

The first night at La Scala in 1842 was not just a triumph for the composer; the success meant much more  at a time when the north of Italy was under Austrian rule.

A story based on the Old Testament account of the Israelites during their Babylonian Captivity, yearning to be free, could not help but strike a chord and a nerve. From “Nabucco” on,” Verdi would be nearly as much a political force as a musical one.

Washington National Opera, after 56 years, has finally added the composer’s early masterwork to its repertoire. It has done so with  ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 26, 2012

Baltmore Concert Opera serves up 'Lucia' complete with armonica

Nothing like a perennial favorite and a bit of novelty to pack 'em in. So it was for Baltimore Concert Opera, which gave two SRO performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor" over the weekend, complete with the armonica Donizetti originally intended for the mad scene.

On Sunday afternoon in the elegant ballroom at the Engineers Club, many of the singers sounded like they were working their way into the roles, rather than having lived in them. Recitative passages suffered especially from a bland delivery that glossed over the vividness of the Italian language.

That said, the performance caught fire as it went along, and, even pared down to orchestra-less concert size, the brilliance of "Lucia" could be appreciated. 

In the title role, Sharon Cheng sounded ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 16, 2012

Robert Ward's 'The Crucible' gets vivid staging by Peabody Opera

Peabody Opera Theatre is on a roll. In the same season that saw worthy productions of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" and Dominick Argento's "Postcard from Morocco," the company has successfully tackled another demanding 20th-century work, Robert Ward's "The Crucible."

Based on the Arthur Miller play, "The Crucible" does not always have a distinctive ring to my ears. I find some of it too obvious or heavy-handed; the orchestral thump at the first mention of the word "witchcraft" is but one example.

And I confess to wondering if Ward was thinking of another American opera when he wrote the big scene between John Proctor and the wicked young woman who once had his heart -- it sounds like it could easily turn into a duet called "Abigail, You Is Not My Woman Now."

That said, "The Crucible" reveals a good deal of craftsmanship and, above all, packs quite a theatrical wallop ans it rushes toward the dispiriting conclusion of this story about bewitched, bothered and bewildered folk in colonial Massachusetts.

Roger Brunyate, directing his final Peabody Opera main stage production as head of the company, seizes on that propulsive element and zeroes in tightly on the drama. He also designed the economical set, which is subtly lit by Douglas Nelson.

Brunyate got impressively intense performances from Thursday night's cast (this group also performs Saturday; another was heard Wednesday and will be onstage Friday). The singers did not ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

March 14, 2012

Peabody Opera offers 'The Crucible,' Roger Brunyate's last staging as artistic director

The years after World War II, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against suspected communists in the government, were filled with intimidation, false accusations and rushes to judgment.

That reminded Arthur Miller of the Salem witch trials, prompting his acclaimed play “The Crucible” in 1952.

Nine years later, all of the intense issues raised in Miller’s work found new expression in an opera by Robert Ward. His version of “The Crucible,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, quickly became one of the most performed American operas.

Its advocates include Roger Brunyate, the artistic director of Peabody Opera Theatre who is retiring from the post after 32 years. He directs the company’s first production of "The Crucible," which opens Wednesday.

“The opera is very close to the Miller text,” Brunyate said, “but is also much more gut-wrenching. It enhances the play enormously, concentrating ruthlessly on the emotional clashes of the characters.”

Ward’s work played a role in the Northern Ireland-born Brunyate’s own career. A few years after joining the Peabody faculty, he was ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

March 12, 2012

Lyric Opera Baltimore continues inaugural season with buoyant 'Figaro'

The tally for Lyric Opera Baltimore's inaugural season is two for two. There have been shortcomings in each, to be sure, but the net result has been positive. 

With a lively, solidly-cast production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" over the weekend, the organization helped to solidify its claim as the successor to the late, lamented Baltimore Opera Company. Actually, in this case, it seemed more a resurrection than replacement.

This was the same physical production the former company presented on the pre-renovated Lyric stage in 2005 -- a formation of a few tall movable set pieces, decorated with crucial documents of the 18th century, designed by Allen Charles Klein.And the same director, Bernard Uzan, was on hand to guide the cast.

I'm all for a little deja vu now and then, but it would have been nice to see something new and more interesting.

That said, the musical side of things represented a significant step up (I caught Sunday afternoon's performance). To begin with, the conductor this time, Joseph Rescigno, balanced momentum with graceful contour. Unlike in '05, the score was allowed to breathe, yet never felt draggy.

There may not have a starry assemblage of singers onstage, but there wasn't a weak link. Everyone demonstrated an appreciation for the subtleties of the music and the text, as well as a flair for creating vibrant characters.

The performers achieved a true ensemble effort, put through their paces by Uzan in unfussy, neatly timed fashion. Comic bits generally hit the spot (Figaro's extra use for a yard stick in the measuring scene, for example), and the opera's more serious side was sensitively served.

In the title role, ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 6, 2012

Kennedy Center announces National Symphony, Washington National Opera 2012-13 seasons

The music portion of the Kennedy Center's 2012-2013 season, announced Tuesday, includes a rich assortment of repertoire led by Christoph Eschenbach in his third season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and a trio of dynamic sopranos fueling Washington National Opera's productions.

Just during his first few programs in the fall, Eschenbach will conduct Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," works by Wagner, Bruckner's Seventh, Dvoark's Seventh and Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" (with mezzo Kelley O'Connor), among other things.

Eschenbach will also participate in the Center's Nordic Cool 2013 festival, conducting works by Sibelius, Lindberg and Saariaho.

Symphonies by Shostakovich and Schnittke also are on Eschenbach's list; he and the NSO will take them to Carnegie Hall as well.

Guest artists include ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

February 27, 2012

Washington National Opera gives musical, theatrical jolt to 'Cosi fan tutte'

Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," with its wicked libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, postulates that all women are faithless in love. An absurd notion, of course, as countless men demonstrate day after day.

Let's face it, we're all a little flawed, prone to mess up relationships, one way or another. Part of being human, you might say.

That's the real lesson of "Cosi," and it is being driven home with imagination and skill in a production Washington National Opera unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. There's a fresh jolt, musical and theatrical, at just about every turn.

The staging marks the company debut of celebrated British director and designer Jonathan Miller. His concept for this work originated at the Royal Opera House and was subsequently produced by Seattle Opera before landing in D.C., which, as it turns out, is the setting Miller devised for this updated take on "Cosi."

Although the cream-colored unit set -- imposing walls, neoclassic doorway -- could be used for any number of operas and any number of time periods or locations, it suggests Washington well enough. Same for the costumes, along with the omnipresent cell phones and occasional lap top. Every time the chorus appears, it looks like a gathering of Capital Hill staffers.

The essence of the plot remains unchanged. The cynical Don Alfonso persuades his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to test their conviction that their respective fiancees, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will always be faithful. After pretending to be called into military service, the two buddies return in disguise; each then attempts to steal the wrong woman. None of the relationships will ever be the same afterward.

There are many ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 21, 2012

Opera world loses another valued singer, soprano Elizabeth Connell

Elizabeth Connell, who started her nearly four-decade career as a mezzo and made a triumphant transition to soprano, died in London from cancer at the age of 65.

If the South African-born singer did not enjoy widespread name recognition, her reputation in the industry was secure and stellar. Miss Connell had the power for Wagner and Strauss, the dramatic truth for Verdi, the elegance for Mozart.

Her final performance was a recital Nov. 27 in Hastings, capping the evening with an encore that now seems all the more touching -- a song by Ernest Charles that was a favorite of divas past, "When I Have Sung My Songs."

Here is that encore from Miss Connell's last concert, complete with an endearing bit of trouble at the end that required starting the song over:

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 20, 2012

Two Maryland opera singers among winners of George London Awards

Among the six young winners of the 41st annual George London Foundation Competition are two native Marylanders -- Frederick-born soprano Corinne Winters and Annapolis-born baritone Zachary Nelson.

The winners each received $10,000 at the conclusion of the competition Friday night at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

The George London Awards are named for the great bass-baritone, who was one of the most valued vocal artists of the 1950s and '60s and later worked in management, including a stint as director of what is now Washington National Opera.

Over the years, the competition has recognized several blossoming talents who went on to enjoy major careers, including Christine Brewer, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Catherine Malfitano, James Morris, Matthew Polenzani, Sondra Radvanovsky, Neil Shicoff, and Dawn Upshaw.

In addition to Winters and Nelson, the 2012 winners are bass-baritone Brandon Cedel, contralto Suzanne Hendrix, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa and soprano Chloé Moore. They were chosen from a field of 90 singers.

Winters, 28, earned her undergraduate degree at Towson University, her master's at the Peabody Conservatory. She is also a graduate of the ... 

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

February 13, 2012

Virginia Opera captures spirit of Philip Glass' 'Orphee'

Philip Glass secured his notable place in the history of 20th century opera with such epic works as "Einstein on the Beach" and "Satyagraha."

But the composer's stage works of more modest dimension would have been enough to earn him stature. "Orphee," from 1993, is a particularly striking example of his art.

The Mid-Atlantic area got a welcome, if long overdue, opportunity to experience "Orphee" last weekend in a visually classy, musically fulfilling production from Virgina Opera.

(Isn't it time a company in the composer's birthplace, Baltimore, embrace his operas? How about it, Peabody Opera? Lyric Opera Baltimore? Anybody?)

The fascinating nature of "Orphee" begins with its source -- the 1949 film of that name by Jean Cocteau, who retold the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld through a contemporary fable of a troubled poet. Glass took the original movie dialogue line for line and used that as the basis of his libretto for the opera, which is sung in French.

The story remains the same -- a mysterious Princess, really an agent of Death, makes dangerous choices after falling for Orphee, who is losing favor with the elite because his poetry has become too popular, and who starts to neglect his wife, Eurydice; the princess' chauffeur develops a crush on Eurydice; a radio conveys messages in a hypnotic code.

The most familiar aspect of the legend -- Eurydice being returned to the underworld when Orphee breaks the rule about looking at here -- is part of this tale as well, but with an optimistic twist.

The issues that Cocteau raised so stylishly in his film get fresh emphasis in the opera -- the creative impulse, the tension between popular and avant-garde art, love and fidelity, life and death.

Glass, writing in his most lyrical and even seductive vein, created a ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 10, 2012

Peabody Chamber Opera sends colorful 'Postcard From Morocco'

Some works of art pull you in by the clearest, most direct of means; you know why you're hooked at the start and you know what you've been through when it's all over.

Some works engage you for reasons you can't entirely explain and fill you with more questions than answers when you walk away, but you still feel satisfied somehow.

"Postcard From Morocco" is one of the latter type. Although this 1971 opera by Dominick Argento is nothing if not elusive, it manages to leave quite an imprint -- on singers as well as audiences, I imagine.

Peabody Chamber Opera has an effective staging of the piece well worth catching at the Theatre Project through Sunday.

It's a nice nod to Argento, who turns 85 this year. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at the Peabody Conservatory in the 1950s and went on to become one of this country's most successful and respected opera composers. He deserves plenty of attention any year.

Which reminds me -- the University of Maryland School of Music will salute Argento's 85th with productions by Maryland Opera Studio of "Postcard From Morocco" and "Miss Havisham's Fire" at the Clarice Smith Center in April. Argento will take part in discussions of his work during the April festival, which also features chamber music concerts, master classes and more. An all-Argento concert on March 30 will be at the center as a prelude to the fest.

OK, back to Peabody, Theatre Project and "Postcard from Morocco."

With a libretto by John Donahoe, the piece offers something of ...


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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

January 31, 2012

Camilla Williams, who broke down racial barriers in opera, dies at 92

Camilla Williams, who broke a racial barrier several years before Marian Anderson famously did so at the Metropolitan Opera, died from cancer at the age of 92 in Bloomington, Ind., where she was a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

Ms. Williams is credited as the first African American to be featured in a starring role with a major American opera company. That debut on May 15, 1946 was in the title role of "Madama Butterfly" with the New York City Opera. The soprano went on to become the first singer in a major role at the Vienna State Opera in 1954, a year before contralto Marian Anderson made her Met debut.

Ms. Williams also was involved in another bit of history -- she sang the national anthem at the Lincoln Memorial before Martin Luther King's delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech there.

Here is a disarming video clip of Ms. Williams describing her early career, which got a boost from the legendary ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 24, 2012

Opera Lafayette uncovers Monsigny work once sung by Marie-Antoinette

The early music scene in our region -- the early music scene, period -- is particularly fortunate to have Opera Lafayette as a major player.

The D.C-based company has been reviving neglected repertoire since 1995, and doing so with remarkable style. Several Naxos recordings document the quality.

The latest discovery, in a production presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday night and heading next to New York on the way to Versailles, is Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's "Le Roi at le fermier."

This 1762 opera enjoyed considerable popularity back in the day, so much so that it was performed in 1780 in the Theatre de la Reine, starring no less than Marie-Antoinette. That alone gives "Le Roi at le fermier" ("The King and the Farmer") abundant curiosity value.

When Opera Lafayette performs the piece at Versailles, it will be with restored sets from 1780, which, somehow survived all these years in storage. The performances, Feb. 4 and 5, will be in the recently renovated Opera Royal at the storied palace.

"Le Roi et le fermier" abounds in felicitous melodies that settle easily into the ear, and they are enhanced by remarkably colorful orchestration.

The libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine spins a simple tale set in Sherwood Forest involving a farmer named Richard and his concern for his beloved Jenny (the role Marie-Antoinette sang). That concern stems from the fact that Lurewel, a courtier of the King of England, has dastardly designs on Jenny.

The king, lost during a hunting expedition, ends up in Richard's humble abode, where he learns how decent and wise commoners can be, and how bad Lurewel is for his image. All ends sweetly.

It may be hard to, um, wrap one’s head around the notion that Marie-Antoinette would want to perform in an opera that depicts how benevolent a monarch could behave toward the little people of his kingdom -- a message that doesn't seem to have stuck with the Queen of France, or her hubby, who witnessed her performance.

But it is easy to ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 18, 2012

Midweek Madness: Operatic outing with Placido Domingo, Carol Burnett (some purple, too)

For your Midweek Madness pleasure or pain (or both), how about a night at the opera with Carol Burnett and Placido Domingo?

To give this a little extra relevance, do notice that Miss Burnett is wearing purple. We in Baltimore know how important purple is right now.

Oh yeah, this little gem even raises that ever-timely issue of ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera

January 10, 2012

Looking into the crystal ball for opera trends in 2012

The folks at Wolf Trap, in what was presumably a moment of great weakness or desperation, asked me to write about possible trends for opera in 2012.

In case you want to see what I came up with, you can do so on the Wolf Trap blog.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Washington National Opera announces complete Ring Cycle, commission projects

Washington National Opera, now firmly a component of the Kennedy Center, made welcome news Tuesday.

For starters, the long-delayed complete "Ring" Cycle -- the company started it, but ran out of money before reaching "Götterdämmerung" -- will be presented in 2016.

This is the so-called "American" Ring, a concept developed by Francesca Zambello, who directed the first three installments in Washington ("Das Rheingold" in 2006, "Die Walküre" in 2007, "Siegfried" in 2009).

Zambello directed the complete cycle last season at the San Francisco Opera. She is now WNO's artistic adviser and will direct at least one production for the company each season.

A concert version "Götterdämmerung" was presented in Washington in 2009, marking the WNO debut of conductor Philippe Auguin, subsequently named WNO music director. He will conduct complete cycle in 2016.

Staring next season, the company will launch a three-part commissioning project. First up, an opportunity for student composers and librettists (three teams will be chosen) to develop 20-minute operas "based on ..

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 6, 2012

Aretha Franklin sets out to discover the next great opera singer

Not sure what to make of this news item from NPR: The Queen of Soul wants to find the next Queen of the Night -- or Aida, or Calaf, or whatever.

The incomparable Aretha Franklin, who once electrified the hell out of folks when she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards and sang his signature aria, "Nessun dorma" (I cannot tell a lie -- I was hooked from her subterranean octave drop in the second measure), has announced a contest for aspiring opera singers.

She told NPR that she would "like ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 19, 2011

Peabody Opera Theatre delivers colorful 'Rake's Progress' at the Lyric

Forgive the abbreviated report (ever the slothful one, I do try to take a day off every now and then), but I wanted to get a little something on the record about Peabody Opera Theater.

The company made its first venture into the Lyric Opera House Friday night with a production of Stravinksy's "The Rake's Progress" that gets a repeat Sunday afternoon.

Catch it if you can -- this work will not be back around soon. (This is quite the week for rarities in Baltimore; the BSO just presented an Honegger oratorio for the first time.)

In brief, the Peabody staging by Garnett Bruce (director) and Luke Hegel-Cantarella (set) provides a colorful, often clever framework for this fable about a young man's descent into ruin and madness.

The orchestra, dynamically led by Hajime Teri Murai, revels in the neo-classical piquancy of Stravinsky's ingenious score. It's great to hear the musicians in the resonant acoustics of the Lyric. The strings, in particular, sounded terrific.

And the young cast ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

November 16, 2011

Washington National Opera offers David Alden's startling version of 'Lucia'

Maybe it's just the contrast with a safe and predictable "La Traviata" the other day in Baltimore that makes the thoroughly unsafe and unpredictable "Lucia di Lammermoor" in DC so much fun.

OK, maybe fun isn't quite the right word -- not when you consider that poor little Lucia in Washington National Opera's production is seen cuddling the equally blood-splattered corpse of her short-lived husband, and that (SPOILER ALERT!) a gunshot-wounded Edgardo gets finished off by Enrico, who snaps the neck of his arch-enemy in the closing seconds.

No, Sam Peckinpah did not get his hands on "Lucia di Lammermoor." David Alden did, originally for English National Opera. His one heckuva powerful staging that has been reproduced here.

You can argue about all sorts of details in Alden's concept, or the black-and-white bleakness of the set (Charles Edwards) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel), conjuring the milieu of a decaying Victorian insane asylum. You can even dismiss the whole darn thing, as one disgruntled opera-goer was overheard doing the day I attended. But you sure won't walk away unmoved.

On balance, it's a remarkably brilliant attempt at cutting through coloratura veneer of this opera to remind everyone just how deep the tragic story is -- sibling betrayal, insanity, murder, suicide.

By updating the action to Donizetti's time, rather than the 16th-century setting of the Walter Scott novel that inspired the opera, Alden does not disturb the essence. The staging toys intriguingly with an inmates-running-the-asylum notion, which only intensifies what becomes here an almost Dickensian drama.

The production makes particularly effective allusions to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 2:42 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Opera Week at Towson U. includes Idol-style contest, one-act works, more

Among the many things happening out there these days is Opera Week at Towson University. Even though we're partway through said week, there's still a lot of activity left:

Wednesday night's diversion is "Opera Idol," an aria contest featuring TU voice students. The audience gets to pick the winners -- and gets a chance at some prizes, too, during an opera quiz.

On Friday, various scenes from works by Mozart, Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan will be performed by TU's Music for the Stage.

Saturday morning finds the focus shifting to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 2:13 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Midweek Madness: Half a Sextet from 'Lucia di Lammermoor'

If you've noticed people stumbling out of the Kennedy Center lately looking dazed, ashen or plain loopy, you'll know they've just attended Washington National Opera's boldly off-beat production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

I'll have more to say about that later, but, for now, I thought that the proximity of an opera all about insanity should help determine my latest Midweek Madness installment. So here's a taste of the great Sextet from "Lucia," as performed by ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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 ...

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

November 5, 2011

Lyric Opera Baltimore debuts with 'La Traviata'

When the financially strapped Baltimore Opera Company went into liquidation in 2009, after more than five decades, it seemed unlikely that a new organization would take its place any time soon. But the unlikely has happened.

On Friday night, Lyric Opera Baltimore debuted with a production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” that provided a dash of déjà vu along with a good feeling about the future.

Many of the singers onstage at the Arthur and Patricia Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, both soloists and choristers, performed with the previous company. In the pit was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which, until the 1990s, used to play for old company.

But a lot is different about Lyric Opera Baltimore — new management, new board of directors, new financial structure (the company is a part of the theater, not a lessee, as Baltimore Opera was). And the building itself is different, too, thanks to a major renovation of the backstage facilities that makes bigger sets and smoother set changes possible.

Friday’s inaugural event (there is another performance Sunday afternoon) had to overcome a couple of technical glitches first. Between a problem with the stage lighting and another at the will-call window, the curtain was delayed for about a half-hour.

The audience seemed to take it all in stride, though, and there were loud cheers when ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 27, 2011

NEA Opera Honors will be streamed live on Web

The ceremony for the 2011 NEA Opera Honors -- the recipients are scenic and costume designer John Conklin, Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, and composer Robert Ward -- will be held at 7:30 Thursday evening at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in D.C.

Tickets are free and, the last I heard, still available (202-547-1122,, or the box office).

NPR's Nina Totenberg is the host for the event, which includes performers by soprano Sarah Coburn and tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

If you can't be there in person, ... 

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 26, 2011

Midweek Madness: The letter-reading passage from 'La Traviata'

As you know by now, Lyric Opera Baltimore is getting ready for its first bow -- a production of Verdi's "La traviata" Nov. 4 and 6. If all goes well, the new company will fill the void left when the Baltimore Opera Company went bust in 2009.

In order to make sure that you get the maximum out of this "Traviata,"  I thought it would be useful to go over a particularly crucial scene  -- the reading of the letter by the oh-so-tragic character of Violetta in Act 2. I found the ultimate explanation and delivery of said letter-reading and ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness, Opera

October 20, 2011

Opera fan urges campaign to dress up for the art form

OK, Baltimore opera-goers. Listen up. Get those mirrors out well before you leave home on Nov. 4 to attend the opening night of "La Traviata," Lyric Opera Baltimore's inaugural production.

Take a good look at what you've got on and ask yourself a simple question: Does this outfit match the event? Would Rosa Ponselle be pleased to see me dressed like this?

I got an interesting email on the topic of attire that I thought was well worth sharing.

Now don't jump to conclusions or start ranting about elitism. Hear the guy out:

Continue reading "Opera fan urges campaign to dress up for the art form " »

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:54 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 13, 2011

Opera Lancaster puts antebellum spin on Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte'

What with the canceled seasons by Opera Vivente and Chesapeake Chamber Opera, Baltimore fans of the genre may be feeling a little worried. But the art form is far from dead in Charm City, and, as always, there are also operatic attractions within easy reach beyond the immediate vicinity.

There's one option you may not have known about -- well, I sure didn't -- and it's a reasonable drive to the north. Opera Lancaster opens its 60th anniversary season this week (that it has been around six decades makes me feel even worse that I overlooked its existence).

The company has chosen Mozart's wonderfully comedy of the sexes, "Cosi fan tutte," and has given it an intriguing twist. Director Anne Mason has re-located the opera to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:16 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 12, 2011

Program at Goucher College Wednesday commemorates Rosa Ponselle

The history of opera has witnessed many great singers whose names continue to resonate through the years and whose artistic standards continue to inspire. Ranking very high on this luminous list is Rosa Ponselle.

The soprano died 30 years ago in Baltimore, where she had long made her home and was the driving force behind the Baltimore Opera Company for a good deal of its history.

She is being remembered in "The Life and Times of Rose Ponselle" Wednesday at Goucher College Hall. This presentation will be made by Elayne Reynolds Duke, the most ardent keeper of the Ponselle flame, and eminent record producer Ward Marston, famed for his restoration of vintage recordings.

The program will include ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 9, 2011

Opera Vivente cancels 2011-2012 season; seeks new home

Opera Vivente, which has enlivened the Baltimore scene for 13 years with wide-ranging repertoire and often highly imaginative productions, all performed in English, has cancelled its 2011-2012 season.

That season was to have opened in a new home next month at with "The Marriage of Figaro." The company announced several months ago that there would be a move from its base at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon to a facility on the east side of town, where the Maryland State Boychoir makes its home.

"Efforts began last spring to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 4:50 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 15, 2011

Patricia Racette shines in Washington National Opera's 'Tosca'

The main reason to catch Washington National Opera's season-opener is the opportunity to savor a genuine diva -- in the best sense of that overused, mostly misapplied term -- in the title role of Puccini's "Tosca."

Patricia Racette, an invariably compelling artist, gave an all-cylinders-firing portrayal on Monday night that combined vocal plushness, intensely committed phrasing and persuasive acting. It was the soprano's show all the way.

Her account of "Vissi d'arte," spun out with excellent breath support, was notable for the rapt phrasing at the start and the way Racette subsequently touched the heart of the matter without overplaying anything.

(Note that Natalia Uskakova is slated to sing one performance of the role, Sept. 23. The production runs through Sept. 24.)

Two tenors are alternating in the role of Cavaradossi. Gwyn Hughes Jones had the Monday slot. His voice ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 5, 2011

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra dies at 43 from injuries in scooter accident

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, who rose to fame after substituting for Luciana Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, died Monday at the age of 43, the result of severe injuries from a motor scooter accident on Aug. 27 in his native Sicily.

It has been reported that the crash may have been caused when the singer experienced a brain hemorrhage. He was not wearing a helmet. After surgery at a hospital in Catania, he went into a coma.

Mr. Licitra's career was launched in 1998 at the Teatro Regio of Parma, but it was his unexpected Met debut four years later in "Tosca," a last-minute sub for Pavarotti, that put the tenor on the international map.

Although Mr. Licitra ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

August 31, 2011

Midweek Madness: An operatic episode from 'What's My Line?'

It's almost too late for my Midweek Madness featurette -- sorry for the delay. I have visions of you clicking endlessly, pitifully, perhaps even tearfully onto the site in hopes of receiving this little weekly jolt of diversion.

Dry those tears. Here, at last, is the entertainment you seek.

I decided on the mystery guest portion from an episode of the vintage TV show "What's My Line?" It's great to see ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

August 9, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera offers vigorous, absorbing production of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

When it comes to opera in the summertime around this region, the most notable action is to be found in Northern Virginia.

For four decades, Wolf Trap Opera has been exploring a wide range of the repertoire and periodically adding to it with commissioned works, all the while showcasing some of the nation's finest young artists.

How fine? Just peruse the list of alumni scheduled to appear on an operatic greatest hits concert Aug. 24 at Wolf Trap's Filene Center to celebrate the company's 40th anniversary: Stephanie Blythe, Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, Alan Held, Eric Owens, James Valenti, to name a few. Quite a legacy.

The alumni concert, to be conducted by Stephen Lord, has something for just about everyone. There will be excerpts from operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Dvorak, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Delibes, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Puccini.

Meanwhile, you can catch a perennial favorite, Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," in an ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

August 3, 2011

Chesapeake Chamber Opera cancels season, searches for new 'home city'

File this under Not Surprising, But Disappointing.

Chesapeake Chamber Opera, one of the modest-sized ensembles that emerged after the demise of the Baltimore Opera Company in 2009, will not be back for the 2011-12 season. If it does emerge again, it may no longer be based in Baltimore.

Founder and general director Beth Stewart says that fundraising became "nearly impossible," given the economy and "the glut of small opera companies and the re-emergence of a grand opera company in Baltimore." (Lyric Opera of Baltimore is due to make its bow in November.)

Chesapeake Chamber Opera "will be going dark this season as the company searches for a new home city where it can grow and flourish."

My limited exposure to the plucky group revealed that ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

July 28, 2011

Israel Philharmonic concert to be shown in movie theaters Thursday

This has turned into a newsy week for Israeli orchestras.

On Tuesday, the Israel Chamber Orchestra made history performing music of Wagner in Germany.

On Thursday, a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will be beamed from Jerusalem into nearly 500 movie theaters, including several in the Baltimore area.

The Philharmonic event, conducted by Zubin Mehta, is devoted to romantic opera repertoire. The guest artists are super-stellar soprano Renée Fleming and one of the most distinctive and appealing tenors of the day, Joseph Calleja. The concert is also a tribute to the notable tenor of the last century, Richard Tucker.  

Of particular interest for Fleming fans may be her performance with Calleja of ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

July 14, 2011

Sumptuous 'Rigoletto' from Mantua with Domingo in title role airs on PBS

The novelty factor of Placido Domingo's singing "Rigoletto" for the first time -- the baritone title role, that is -- makes watching the PBS special airing Friday night on WMPT-Ch. 22/67 a must-see.

(It's also scheduled, oddly in the middle of the night, on WETA-Ch. 26, at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.)

Never mind that the eminent tenor doesn't always seem all that comfortable in the lower range (I think he sounded more persuasive vocally when he tackled the role of Simon Boccanegra). Domingo's Rigoletto is still a fascinating portrayal by a great and brave vocal artist, one of the most accomplished in the history of opera.

The visual quality of this film, shot on the locations of the opera's actual setting and at the time of day indicated in the libretto, is a big attraction in its own right, quite the feast for the eyes. Produced by Andrea Andermann, who first revealed a flair for on-location opera with his filmed "Tosca" in 1992, and directed by Marco Bellocchio, this is very much a cinematic "Rigoletto."

The immediacy of a stage performance is lost, of course, but the cast seems energized by the surroundings. They aren't just having a romp through pretty, historic surroundings; genuine characterizations are revealed.

And, with ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:06 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 28, 2011

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opens with an effective 'La Boheme'

Some people wouldn't cross the street to hear an opera. And some opera lovers wouldn't cross the street to hear yet another "La Boheme."

Me, I'll drive nearly three hours for a "Boheme" and nearly three to get back home -- all in the same day, which is what I did on Saturday to catch that Puccini classic at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival deep into Rappahannock County Virginia.

The landed gentry turned out for the opening night, as did some pretty newsy folks -- I spotted Carter Administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bush/Clinton/Bush counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine and frequent MSNBC commentator David Corn. Hey, a little crowd-gazing is always fun.

(This opening gala was a fundrasier for the festival, which has a roughly $2 million budget. As Maazel, whose own money has been the main support for the enterprise, told me recently: "God helps those who help themselves, but there's a limit, obviously.")

The Castleton Festival proved its Puccini chops with last summer’s absorbing production of "Il Trittico." For "Boheme," Maazel had a freshly erected pavilion that offered a larger orchestra pit (and more cooperative air conditioning ) than the rented one used last year.

Although Maazel has praised the acoustics of the facility, I assume that was before a full audience was in the place. The sound on Saturday was a little dry and heavily favored the orchestra (except for the harp, which seemed to be in another room). Voices, at least from my perch about half way up the risers, couldn't always cut through. Still, the overall quality of the venture was easily savored.

The opera got an update to what looked like the 1930s. Nicholas Vaughan’s earth-tone set recalled expressionist films, with off-kilter angles of the looming Parisian rooftops.

Joyce El-Khoury, an endearing presence last summer in "Gianni Schicchi," was ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 27, 2011

Theatre Project's 40th season to feature local companies, pass-the-hat performances

Founded in 1971 as a free-admission venue, Theatre Project will give a nod to that practice during a typically diverse 40th anniversary season that features several local companies and new or new-to-Baltimore works.

A totally free policy wouldn't fly economically, of course, but "to celebrate our beginnings as a free theater, all of our productions this year will feature at least a rehearsal or performance where there is no admission and we’ll 'pass the hat' after the show," says producing director Anne Cantler Fulwiler.

Another element of the 2011-2012 season involves residencies by local companies, which will spend several weeks at Theatre Project. The Generous Company, for example, which made quite an impression there last year with "I Am The Machine Gunner," will be on hand most of January with a festival of new works.

In the fall, Iron Crow Theatre Company will offer "Parallel Lives" by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney (who performed the work at Theatre Project in 1986); in the spring, "The Soldier Dreams" by Daniel MacIvor.

In time for Halloween, Factory Edge Theatre Works will presents its version of ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera, Peabody Institute

June 24, 2011

UK's Guardian provides first live-streaming from Glyndebourne

I've only managed one visit to Glyndebourne, the historic and magical opera festival in the East Sussex area of England, and I've been itching to return ever since. If only my lottery numbers would finally pay off.

Meanwhile, here's some great news:

Thanks to The Guardian, my favorite source of British news and views, folks anywhere can ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 21, 2011

Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop offers 'random acts of arias and dinner'

The Cabaret Room at Germano’s Trattoria in Little Italy has developed into a very opera-friendly spot. The Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop returns to the venue for this second year, this time with "A Random Act of Arias and Dinner," presented on Wednesday and July 6 ($50 per person includes four-course meal, tax and tip).

The workshop, led by Vincent Dion Stringer, is a venture of Morgan State University's Department of Fine and Performing Arts.

Audience members get to play a small role in the concert of arias and show tunes at Germano's -- they'll draw the names of the musical selections from a hat to determine the random order of the program.

For reservations, call 410-752-4515.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 15, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera revives rare work by Wolf-Ferrari and gives it a 'Mad Men' touch

If you want to stump your most smug opera-nut friends, just ask them to name more than two works by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

If they oblige, chances are their answers won't include "Le Donne Curiose," let alone a plot summation or the humming of a few bars.

This 1903 opera had a brief moment in the sun. Of particular note was the Met's production of 1911, which was brought back the following season.

In both cases, it had the advantage of being conducted by Arturo Toscanini and starring Geraldine Farrar, one of the most popular vocal artists of the day. A New York reviewer declared "Le Donne Curiose" to be "a treasury of brilliant delights, of musical inventions and fancies."

Well, times change, tastes change. Today, this particular example of Wolf-Ferrari's craftsmanship is about as obscure as can be. But that's going to change this weekend.

Putting the Ferrari into Wolf Trap, the indomitable Wolf Trap Opera has dusted off this curiosity and, judging from rehearsal photos (one is at the right, courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera), has given it what promises to be a very cool staging, a la "Mad Men."

Kim Witman, the ever-imaginative head of the company, knew ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:47 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 7, 2011

Voices rising to make the case for saving New York City Opera

There is a growing chorus of dismay and anger over the dire situation at New York City Opera.

That company has one of the most distinguished track records in the business, all the more remarkable given that it lived in the shadow of the better-funded, higher-profile Met.

Like many an arts group, NYCO has had its troubles raising money and selling tickets.

But a lot of the recent troubles there seem self-inflicted, which makes the matter all the more lamentable. 

The current plan calls for moving NCYO away from Lincoln Center to points as yet unknown, to perform repertoire as yet unannounced at a budget as yet undetermined, managed by an administration that was just drastically reduced.

There's something terribly wrong with this picture.

I heartily recommend that you read two eloquent pleas that appeared Tuesday.

One is in ...

Continue reading "Voices rising to make the case for saving New York City Opera" »

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:26 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 13, 2011

The pop version of opera arias to end all pop versions of opera arias

Move over, Il Divo. Move over anyone who ever tried to put a pop music spin on great opera arias.

This, folks, is the ultimate performance by the greatest male ensemble with the best hair.

Listen, laugh and weep:

Continue reading "The pop version of opera arias to end all pop versions of opera arias" »

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 12, 2011

Washington National Opera offers 'Iphigenie en Tauride'

If you aren't in the habit of excavating the Sun's Web site, you may have missed this: my review of "Iphigenie en Tauride" at Washington National Opera. And we wouldn't want you to be out of that loop, would we?

I didn't expect to attend two productions of this masterwork by Gluck in the same season, both starring Placido Domingo.

I found the Metropolitan Opera's version to be quite compelling back in February; I found WNO's very different approach equally absorbing.

And in both cases, Domingo's singing proved remarkably satisfying. He really is an amazing artist. 

Like a lot of opera lovers, I spend a fair amount of time bemoaning the fact that we don't have as many fabulous singers as previous generations enjoyed. Then I remember Domingo.

End of lamentation. 

In my interview with the tenor earlier this month, he noted that Gluck was ripe for more attention.

"The public is very much in love with Handel now," Domingo said. "I think, little by little, it is going to be the same with Gluck." I hope he's right.

PHOTO (by Scott Suchman) COURTESY OF WNO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 22, 2011

Theatre Project, American Opera Theater cancels 'Lost in the Stars'

An American Opera Theater production of Kurt Weill's musical "Lost in the Stars" scheduled to open April 22 at the Theatre Project and involving the Baltimore School for the Arts has been canceled.

Director Tim Nelson mentioned to me a while back that there were issues with the Weill Foundation over the performance rights, especially having to do with orchestration of the score.

In the end, the company could not secure the rights, according to a statement released by the Theatre Project, a statement that also offered "sincere thanks to the wonderful faculty and students at the Baltimore School for the Arts who supported this project and gave so generously of their time and talent."

The on-again, off-again Weill production would have been the last enterprise by the adventurous American Opera Theater, which announced earlier that this would be its final season.

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 16, 2011

Peabody Opera presents double bill of fanciful Poulenc, Ravel works

Peabody Opera has been on a French kick this season. Judging by the fine production of Massenet's "Manon," things ought to be quite interesting when the company turns this week to a really great pair of unusual works -- Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges" (The Child and the Sorceries) and Poulenc's
"Les mamelles de Tiresias" (The Breasts of Tiresias). Performances are Wednesday through Saturday.

The 1944 Poulenc opera isn't quite as, um, titillating as it sounds, but is stacked with fabulous surrealist fancies. Based on a play by Apollinaire, the work tells of a wife who changes her gender and her husband, who gives birth to more than 40,000 children in one day. Amid all the nonsense, the music conveys a subtle eulogy to a France devastated by two world wars.

Ravel's prismatic opera, with a libretto by Colette, deals with a nasty kid prone to hurting animals and things. He gets his comeuppance when his victims, including a clock, a tea cup, a tree and a poor cat, come to life. In the end, the boy develops a conscience and a heart.

Here's a snippet of the Poulenc piece to get you in the mood for Peabody Opera's cool double bill:

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

March 14, 2011

Bryn Terfel, Placido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach and Olivier Messiaen create hot night in D.C.

Saturday night offered such tantalizing musical prospects in D.C. that I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all.

At 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera presented the stirring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert conducted by giga-star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo.

At 8 p.m., a few yards from the opera house, the National Symphony Orchestra offered Olivier Messiaen's monumental "Turangalila Symphony," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Thanks to the fact that the NSO devoted the first half of its program to a discussion of the Messiaen work, I managed to catch nearly all of Terfel's performance and then all of "Turangalila."

I left both events on a high.

Terfel remains one of the most compelling vocal artists of our time. If more opera singers had his combination of musicality and audience-embracing personality, the art form would be a lot more popular.

The program, part of WNO's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, contained the usual assortment of chestnuts, but the delivery was anything but routine. For one thing, Terfel started off with

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Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

March 11, 2011

Opera Vivente presents rarely heard version of Handel's 'Rinaldo'

Among Handel's numerous operas, "Rinaldo" ranks rather high.

Never mind that the first version in 1711 contains recycled portions of earlier works; the main thing is that it provided the composer's sensational operatic debut in London. And never mind that his 1731 revision of the score also contains older material. It's still a good show, still filled with attractive melodies and vivid orchestration.

The earlier edition is the one that has received the bulk of attention from opera and record companies. The 1731 "Rinaldo," apparently, has never been staged in this country. At least Opera Vivente hasn't been able to determine otherwise, so its production, which wraps up Saturday, has the extra bonus of a little history-making.

The flair of Handel's music goes a long way toward making up for a convoluted plot about Crusaders, sorcerers and thwarted love. This is an opera where the parts are perhaps greater than the whole; each aria, each scene has its own power.

Opera Vivente, directed by John Bown and provided a vivid abstract set by Thomas Bumblauskas, offers a fanciful, futuristic take on the piece. We're in a post-apocalyptic world here, where the characters ...

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 2, 2011

Juan Diego Florez inaugurates WNO's Placido Domingo Celebrity Series

I've said before that the up-where-the-air-is-rare kind of arts need stars as much as TV and movies do. Stars generate excitement and interest; they raise, or at least solidify, standards (well, they're should).

The Washington National Opera's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series of vocal concerts was launched Sunday afternoon by a certified, irresistible star -- Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez -- and will continue with another, Bryn Terfel this season, Angela Gheorghiu and Deborah Voigt next season. Cool.

The concert Florez gave at the Kennedy Center with the WNO Orchestra, deftly conducted by Alessandro Vitiello, generated terrific sparks.

The tenor did not just settle for the coloratura pyrotechnics he's famous for, although that alone would have made the event memorable -- after all, you don't often hear such clean runs, as he effortlessly dispatched in

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 28, 2011

Washington National Opera delivers affecting production of 'Madama Butterfly'

Opera is the sum of many parts. A performance of an opera is too, which is why careful assembly is required.

Too often, one or more of the components comes up short -- the singing or the characterizations, the stage direction or maybe the scenery, the conducting or the orchestral playing.

The result is that you might start to feel you'll never find a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients.

Well, say hello to a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients: Washington National Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly."

I'm not saying its perfect -- is any production perfect? -- or that it'll erase all memories of previously indelible performances you've known, live or on recording. Believe me, I haven't gone all soft in the head. But on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the company delivered a cohesive result from consistently strong assets -- expressive vocal power, affectingly detailed acting, abundant visual interest, deeply involved conducting, and a lot of lush sounds from the orchestra.

Sure, you can tick off the occasional note that wasn't firmly centered or didn't have enough stamina, not to mention the occasional slip of coordination between stage and pit (or inside the pit).

But throughout the evening, I was repeatedly struck by

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Peabody Chamber Opera returns to the '50s via works by Bernstein, Hoiby

There was quite an operatic outbreak over the weekend in Baltimore and D.C. It started Friday night (for me) with Peabody Chamber Opera's double bill at the Theatre Project.

The focus of this production was on the '50s -- a work written during that era, Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti"; and a work evoking it, Lee Hoiby's "This is the Rill Speaking." (Talk of movies and movie-going pops up in both items, a little connective thread that adds to the aptness of pairing them.)

The Hoiby opera from 1992, inspired by a Lanford Wilson play, provides a slice of '50s Americana, with quick-moving vignettes introducing assorted rural characters. The piece sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary (a four-letter word gets tossed around; there are references to masturbation), but stylistically it's firmly in conservative, mid-century idioms -- the shadows of Copland and Barber are in the air.

Hoiby is best known for his songs, which have been championed by some great American classical vocal artists. The opera reflects the composer's melodic gifts, especially in the wistful closing moments. It isn't quite a seamless package, the net effect is quite effective.

The Peabody staging, directed with a mostly light touch by Jennifer Blades, featured

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

February 25, 2011

Baltimore Symphony presents lively concert version of 'The Magic Flute'

There is some risk involved when orchestras present opera in a concert format. They've got to keep the operatically inclined portion of the audience from feeling short-changed by the lack of scenery and costumes, but they also have to keep the operatically-averse portion of the same audience from feeling threatened or bored.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra strikes a pretty neat balance with its semi-staged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which has generated strong interest at the box office. (Final performances are Saturday and Sunday.)

It helps, of course, that this is a very popular opera by a very popular composer. By the same token, such familiar fare still needs some freshness, even when performed concert-style. There's a good deal of flair in the BSO's version, which features engaging, vocally reliable singers, a few props and atmospheric lighting.

This is no stand-and-sing affair, but includes lots of effective stage business (bits involving rope are particularly amusing), directed by Michael Ehrman, a veteran of many a staged opera production.

A key asset in this venture is

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Opera

February 18, 2011

Placido Domingo featured in Gluck's 'Iphigenie en Tauride' at the Met

Throughout the history of music, you can find composers who enjoyed enormous fame and admiration, only to slip into widespread neglect. Usually, it means that someone more famous and more admired happened along, transforming the style and scope of the art form and changing public tastes in the process.

Christoph Willibald Gluck suffered such a fate. He was, in his own way, a revolutionary, carving out a fresh path for opera, away from the ornamental excess of the late baroque and laying the groundwork for others to take the genre yet another big step. For a while, Gluck's stature was considered equal to that of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner (if memory serves, his visage is among those of eminent composers adorning the interior of the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore).

Gluck once said his goal was to create

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 5, 2011

Remembering this weekend's other notable centennial: tenor Jussi Bjorling

OK, so he didn’t lead a country or challenge anyone to “tear down that wall.” But, in his own realm, Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling is every bit as loved and lionized as Ronald Reagan is in his.

Saturday marks Bjorling’s centennial, an event that will not get as much attention as Reagan’s on Sunday, but I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to the singer I’d happily defend as the greatest lyric tenor of the 20th century.

Caruso enjoyed more fame and made a bigger impact historically, and the Italian tenor's fabulous vocal resources remain overwhelming, even through the limited sonic means of early recordings. But Bjorling had something that I find even more appealing, more thrilling.

His is a voice I could listen to for hours on end without growing weary. Part of that is the eloquent style behind the singing, the avoidance of anything manipulative or tacky (he was not the type to add sobs to the big aria in “Pagliacci”). But the main thing is the exquisite purity of the tone, with a hint of sweetness making it ever more personal and inviting. There's something of the sun in his voice, and it's that radiance that gets me every time.

Bjorling died, absurdly young, at 49 in 1960 (he had heart trouble and a weakness for drink), but what a legacy he left behind. If you haven’t yet explored that legacy, please seek his out recordings (there are a few video souvenirs, too) and see if you don’t fall quickly under the vocal spell. I’ll help get you started by

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 1, 2011

Washington National Opera announces mostly-Italian 2011-12 season

Washington National Opera's 2011-12 season -- the last one prepared by outgoing general director Placido Domingo -- will be heavy on the Italian flavor.

Puccini's "Tosca," conducted by Domingo, opens the season in September, followed by Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in November. Verdi's "Nabucco" and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" (in this case, of course, it's the libretto that's Italian, not the composer) will follow. A great French opera will be bring a change of language and style to close the season: Massenet's "Werther."

Domingo called the season announcement "bittersweet" in the press release. "I am proud that I and my team have crafted a powerful season with quality and artistic integrity as our number-one goals," he said. Although this is his last major stamp on the company, the tenor went on to say that "WNO will forever be in my heart, and I do plan to stay involved with the company." WNO will be absorbed into the Kennedy Center starting in July.

All five productions for '11-'12 will be new to WNO. One of them, "Cosi," is being touched up by

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 31, 2011

Welsh soprano Margaret Price dies at 69

The vocally radiant soprano Margaret Price -- Dame Margaret Price since 1993 -- died Jan. 28 of heart failure. Her death at the age of 69 was in her native Wales, where she lived with her three dogs since her retirement a little more than a decade ago.

The singer's much-admired international career started with the Welsh National Opera in 1962. Price was especially loved for her interpretations of Mozart and lieder, but her range was considerable. One of her greatest achievements was the Carlos Kleiber-conducted recording of "Tristan und Isolde," an opera she never performed in the opera house.

Price was perhaps not as widely known as she should have been, but she touched many a vocal music fan with her exceedingly beautiful tone and unfailingly communicative phrasing, as you can hear on these examples of her remarkably artistry:

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Categories: Classical, Opera

January 28, 2011

Opera superstar Renee Fleming to appear on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Just caught up with this earth-shattering news: Renee Fleming, the brilliant and enormously popular soprano, will make a guest appearance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

I'm assuming she'll be one of the victims, rather than a perp, but how cool it would be to see Renee as the heavy: Met diva does unthinkable things to thoughtless tenor!

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:40 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 20, 2011

Washington National Opera to affiliate with Kennedy Center in July

Ending months of speculation, Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center announced Thursday an affiliation of the two organizations, beginning July 1.

Talk of a possible union spread last year and intensified after Placido Domingo announced he would step down as general director at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Domingo is quoted in Thursday's press release saying that he supports "fully" this "important new direction for Washington National Opera."

WNO has had its share of difficulties raising money, and a merger with the Kennedy Center was widely viewed as a wise business move. Having Michael Kaiser as Kennedy Center president is seen as another bonus; he has a remarkable track record of helping to turn around arts organizations, including the Royal Opera in London.

The Kennedy Center already has the National Symphony Orchestra under its administrative wing. Having an opera company, too, makes the center

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 11, 2011

Death of 'Breaking Away' director Peter Yates brings back memories of tenor aria

The news that British film director Peter Yates died over the weekend at the age of 81 stirred fond memories of his 1979 hit "Breaking Away" (and less fond memories of "For Pete's Sake," the Barbra Streisand comic vehicle from 1974 that delivers maybe six or seven good laughs).

My favorite part about "Breaking Away" is the young hero's obsession with all things Italian. Dennis Christopher was great in the role of Dave, who takes his Italian phase to the ultimate step of pretending to be an exchange student, hoping to impress a college girl.

Dave's musical weapon of charm in the movie is "M'appari" from Friedrich Flotow's 1847 opera "Martha." It's easy to understand Dave's choice. This is a wonderfully lyrical aria that seems to gain in sensual appeal by being sung in Italian (that's how it used to be most often heard), although it also hits the spot, to be sure, in its original German as "Ach, so fromm." Either way, it's the only reason anyone remembers the name Flotow today.

If you've never seen "Breaking Away," it's well worth seeking out; I've attached the trailer. But first, check out these two performances of Flotow's lovely aria. You'll hear one of the great singers of the past, Tito Schipa, giving a superbly elegant account in Italian. Then, the current big buzz-generator in tenordom, Jonas Kaufmann, delivering it very expressively in German:

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 4, 2011

American Opera Theater's next, typically provocative production may be its last

One of the more interesting stories on what might be called Baltimore's alternative opera scene has been the innovative little company that arrived earlier in the past decade with an emphasis on the baroque. Initially called Ignoti Dei Opera, the ensemble, founded by Timothy Nelson, eventually changed its name to American Opera Theater and moved well beyond the baroque as it tackled off-the-beaten-path fare and provocative interpretations of more standard works.

The 2010-11 season will apparently be the company's last.

December's production, a re-imagining of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was canceled. Now, the February venture, a collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory, is being billed as a swan song. 

Press releases received Tuesday from Nelson and the Theatre Project both announce that American Opera Theater is "finally hanging up its hat," but "going out with a bang"; the company's own Web site uses the word "goodbye."

However, Nelson sent me a subsequent email saying there is "some possibility of saving" a spring production of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," if money can be found. UPDATE: Heard again from Nelson, who says "the needed resources for 'Lost' were just confirmed, so we are going forward with it."

Meanwhile, next month's "bang" is a most intriguing double bill Feb. 4-13 at the Theatre Project: Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (the work that launched AOT eight years ago) and the local premiere of

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

December 13, 2010

Elizabeth Futral raises her voice in support of Lyric Opera Baltimore

It's really too early to know for sure how things will turn out for Lyric Opera Baltimore, the new company set to launch next November in the theater where the Baltimore Opera Company was a longtime tenant. Everyone connected with the venture says the fiscal and management mistakes that led to the demise of the old organization will not be repeated, that there will be sufficient money in the bank before anything goes onstage.

Meanwhile, a three-production season for 2011-2012 has been announced, complete with casting info, and, on Sunday night, Lyric Opera Baltimore offered a free concert featuring the soprano who will help inaugurate that season in "La Traviata" -- Elizabeth Futral.

The singer is well known to Baltimore Opera audiences; she starred in several productions in the company's final years. She donated her services for the recital and, at the conclusion, spoke of how "many hearts broke" across the country when Baltimore Opera folded. She encouraged the audience to support the new company. Earlier, her husband, Steven White, who will conduct that "Traviata," took the stage to urge the opening of pocketbooks to help with the "revitalization, rejuvenation and renaissance of opera in Baltimore."

Given the small turnout for this event, I wasn't sure how optimistic to get, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm in the place. No one sounds more upbeat or determined than James Harp, artistic director of the new company, who accompanied Futral with extraordinary sensitivity and flair at the piano.

For her part, the soprano, looking supremely elegant, offered a rich program featuring opera and holiday repertoire. I was especially taken with

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

December 10, 2010

For the classical music lover on your holiday gift list, Part 2

Vittorio GrigoloIf you holiday gift list includes an opera fan, might as well jump on the Vittorio bandwagon. Vittorio Grigolo, that is, the young, handsome singer who has the potential to move into the fast track for superstardom. His new Sony Classical release, "Vittorio Grigolo -- The Italian Tenor" -- is a winner.

I remember well Grigolo's 2007 Washington National Opera debut in "La Boheme" and return in 2008 for "Lucrezia Borgia." In both cases, he proved an exciting performer, with abundant personality onstage and a voice that had considerable presence.

I noted both times a tendency to strain on top notes and to maintain a mostly loud volume, signs that the tenor could end up shortening his time in the spotlight.

But the recording, devoted to arias by Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, finds Grigolo sounding very comfortable (the microphone loves his voice). The vocal production is natural, the dynamic inflections numerous.

Anyone who can pass my favorite tenor test, at least on recording (I rarely hear anyone come close in live performance), is OK by me. That test comes in this line from

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Opera

November 30, 2010

German tenor Peter Hofmann, as comfortable singing Wagner as Webber, dies at 66

Peter Hofmann, the German tenor whose handsome looks and vibrant vocalism made him one of the most sought-after Wagnerian artists of his day, died Tuesday in Bavaria at the age of 66. According to news reports, he had been in the hospital with pneumonia; he also had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Hofmann did not have a long operatic career, but his peak period, from the mid-'70s into the '80s, included triumphant performances of heroic roles in Wagner operas. The tenor's rugged good looks made him seem doubly effective in that repertoire. He was equally at home in rock music, an early love that he never abandoned. He also made his mark in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" in a German-language production during the early '90s.

Mr. Hofmann, whose much-too-early death follows a distressingly long list of musical obituaries in 2010, left an admirable mark on the opera world. Here's an example, from an acclaimed as Siegmund in a 1980 performance of "Die Walkure" at Bayreuth:

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Elizabeth Futral donates performance to promote opera at the Lyric

Elizabeth Futral, the dynamic soprano who starred in several productions during the closing years of the Baltimore Opera Company, will donate a performance this month at that company's old home base, the Lyric (more properly known now as the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric).

Futral's free recital is being billed as an "intimate musicale" in support of "bringing grand opera back to Baltimore."

The soprano will be accompanied by pianist James Harp, the director of opera and education at the Lyric, where large-scale opera productions are set to return under the Lyric's own auspices next season.

The recital is "open to the public and free of charge, other than a cash bar," says Kathleen A. Grayson, the Lyric's director of external relations. "People should simply call 410-900-1163 to make reservations.

"One purpose of this event is to reach out to the former BOC subscribers and patrons who lost ticket money in the bankruptcy. This goodwill effort is an opportunity to wet the appetite of our opera loving community and announce our upcoming 2011-2012 season." Grayson says. "In March ’11 we will offer another similar event which will preview the upcoming season..."

The event begins at

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 29, 2010

Life imitates art; despondent soprano commits suicide

Just what you need as the holiday season is breaking out -- a sad story from Bucharest.

Over the weekend, Romanian soprano Roxana Briban died of an apparent suicide at the age of 39. Her husband found her body in a bathtub; her wrists were slit.

The AP reports that the singer, whose career included appearances at opera houses in Berlin, Amsterdam and Vienna, had been depressed since the the Bucharest National Opera canceled her contract last year.

In a decidedly operatic touch, the soprano posted a video clip on her Facebook page the day she died -- her own performance of Violetta's death scene in Verdi's "La Traviata." (Another of her roles was Cio-Cio San, the young Japanese woman who commits suicide in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly.")

Something about this story really stings, as did the horrible news of tenor Jerry Hadley's suicide a few years ago. I had not come across Roxana Briban before reading of her passing, but

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 23, 2010

American Opera Theatre cancels December productions in Baltimore

Timothy Nelson, founding artistic director of the innovative American Opera Theatre, sent word from Amsterdam, where he currently lives, concerning two productions that were to open at Baltimore's Theatre Project next week -- a pared down version of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and a staged realisation of Messiaen's song cycle "Harawi":

It is with sadness that I announce the cancellation of AOT's upcoming productions, "Butterfly" and "Harawi". Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances these performances are no longer possible. All those who purchased tickets will receive a full refund. If you have any questions about this please phone 410-752-8558 or email

No word yet on the remainder of the company's Baltimore season. On the calendar in February is a dual bill at the Theatre Project in collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore -- a staged version of Melissa Dunphy's "Gonzales Cantata" from 2008, with a text from the congressional testimony of the Bush Administration's Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales; and a production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Later in the season, a production of Weill's "Lost in the Stars" is also scheduled.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 19, 2010

Peabody Opera Theatre offers persuasive production of Massenet's 'Manon'

Manon Lescaut was the original Material Girl, incapable of resisting glittery possessions or lovers. But, of course, she had a heart of gold, which is why she inspired at least three operas.

The ones we know today are by Massenet and Puccini, two totally different takes on the same basic story (by Abbe Prevost). Which do I prefer? Like Manon, I guess I just love the one I'm with, and that happened to be Massenet's Thursday night.

The score is delicious, sometimes frothy and sometimes exquisitely poetic. The characters are deftly drawn. Manon and boyfriend No. 1, Des Grieux, fall in love awfully fast even by romantic opera standards, but they do so with such charm that you can't help but believe in them.

Their love affair falls apart pretty fast, too, but, again, thanks to Massenet's deft touch, everything makes sense in its own sweet way. And the finale, with Manon and Des Grieux back together in time for her to die, is filled with exquisite nuances.

Puccini put more passion and soul into his version, but Massenet's still holds up sturdily.

The new production by Peabody Opera Theatre, nimbly directed by Roger Brunyate, might better be described as

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 6, 2010

Opera world loses another beloved star: Soprano Shirley Verrett dies at 79

The news of Shirley Verrett's death Friday at the age of 79 comes as the opera world is still mourning the loss of Joan Sutherland. Miss Verrett, ill for several months, died in her sleep in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she had lived and taught since 1996.

The singer gained fame first as a mezzo-soprano with an uncommonly lustrous tone, but she moved into the soprano realm with equal success, defying predictions that her voice would not survive the transition. Opera fans debated the matter anyway, of course, but no one could doubt Miss Verrett's commitment to anything she sang.

Beautiful, even regal, Miss Verrett delivered a combination of refined musicality and dramatic power that earned her comparisons with Maria Callas. Her contribution to the operatic art, and to the removal of barriers against African American singers, will long be honored and treasured.

I thought this live, richly expressive performance of

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 1, 2010

Weekend in Review: Chesapeake Chamber Opera performs 'Hansel and Gretel'

Neatly timed for Halloween, Chesapeake Chamber Opera offered a production of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," a work that features a delectable witch.

I caught Sunday's matinee at Memorial Episcopal Church, which drew a nice-sized audience, including quite a few kids (some in costume).

This marked the first venture into staged opera by the Chesapeake organization, which started last season with a concert format (albeit a decidedly dynamic version). "Hansel and Gretel" was a good choice for going the staging route, since its storybook flavor lends itself easily to basic costumes and the sort of simple, cartoon-like pieces of scenery (designed by John Seeley) employed here.

Having taken the step toward more traditional operatic presentation, 

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Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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

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

October 12, 2010

More thoughts on Joan Sutherland, and more souvenirs of her art

For lovers of the vocal art, great opera singers are the equivalent of great movie stars. They've got the same larger-than-life aura. They make us look forward intently to their next performance, while we treasure each past one. They keep us interested in their private lives. We love to read about what they're doing and thinking, their views about themselves or others, about the business and the art.

We lost a major opera star Monday, when Dame Joan Sutherland, the astonishing Australian-born soprano, died at 83. Never mind that she stopped singing publicly a long time ago. Her presence was ever-fresh on recordings and video. And, having left an extremely high bar, Dame Joan was always still around, in a sense, whenever anyone, anywhere sang her repertoire -- "Not bad, but you should have heard Joan Sutherland."

Dame Joan, like Maria Callas, transformed the way people heard a big part of the opera repertoire, the bel canto genre that had mostly been the domain of songbird sopranos before they came along. Dame Joan did not have the earthy, emotional sound of Callas, but she nonetheless could flesh out coloratura filigree in a stunning way. The richness of the voice, from top to bottom, and the superb sense of style made all the difference. And Dame Joan proved just as compelling when she moved beyond bel canto, even way beyond, at least on one venerable recording, into the demanding title role of Puccini's "Turandot."

This much-loved soprano earned the affection of opera fans because she could make opera so exciting just with the brilliant sound she made. We crave fabulous voices the way early film fans craved fabulous faces. Dame Joan Sutherland satisfied and justified the need for opera stars. It's that simple.

We want our idols to stay with us; we don't care if they age, or stay mostly out of sight, as long as they're still around. It doesn't feel right, doesn't feel fair when they're gone. It hurts a little when a living legend passes on to legend.

I couldn't resist posting some more souvenirs of the Sutherland legacy. My thanks to a friend for alerting me to a rare, just-posted video of the soprano in never-broadcast footage from a '74 Met "Hoffmann," which I'm sharing here (I hope it doesn't get pulled before you get a chance to enjoy Dame Joan's Olympia). For fun, I've added an audio clip of the unlikely trio of Joan, Ella and Dinah singing Gilbert and Sullivan. And then the sublime combination of Joan Sutherland and her longtime friend Marilyn Horne in the "Norma" duet:

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 8, 2010

Washington National Opera's 'Salome' needs sharper edge

Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" had a lot going for it Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, but just didn't heat up to a combustible degree. I recall the company's previous "Salome" eight years ago as a much more gripping musical and theatrical experience.

An unexpected drawback was Deborah Voigt in the title role, a role she sang wonderfully just down the hall from the opera house a few years ago in a concert version with the National Symphony.

This time, the soprano often sounded underpowered and, in the upper register, unsteady. To be sure, her phrasing was astute, and the essential musicality of the performance was never in doubt -- Voigt is a very classy artist. But, without being able to cut easily through the orchestra, without producing quite enough tonal lushness to enrich the most ecstatic passages, she wasn't able to make Salome a totally riveting, formidable presence.

I hasten to add that Voigt's acting had a lot of life; she effectively conveyed the petulant, manipulative, shameless nature of this hellion.

Perhaps the rest of the run will find Voigt in more consistent form. She'll still be stuck with

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Posted by Tim Smith at 4:35 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
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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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