As the 2014-15 opera season headed toward its grand finale (Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird), generous local opera gods gave us four major productions: Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance’s rarely performed Mozart comedy La finta giardiniera; Opera Philadelphia’s Verdi masterpiece Don Carlo; Academy of Vocal Arts’s beloved Gounod Faust; and Curtis Opera Theatre’s Rake’s Progress, extraordinary Stravinsky. Added treat: the Concert Operetta Theater’s charming semi-staged version of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
La finta giardiniera ("The Make-believe Gardener"), written in 1774 when Mozart was 18, has a witty but convoluted plot (he loves her but she doesn’t love him because she loves him, but he loves someone else, and so on) involving, of course, disguises. There are exquisite solos and “previews” of great future works. Almost all seven roles are major, but the young Temple singers were impressively up to histrionic and vocal intricacies alike, and the orchestra under Valéry Ryvkin would have made Mozart proud. Director David Carl Toulson updated the plot from the 1700s to the roaring ‘20s, replete with gangsters and a suspicious violin case in clever, humorous sets, most of which worked perfectly.
Distracting, detracting set
In Opera Philadelphia’s powerful Don Carlo, in contrast, while most of the direction by Tim Albery was fine, some of the sets by Andrew Lieberman detracted and distracted from the evening’s drama. When a hexagonal gray cupola, resembling an immense umbrella, overstayed its usefulness above the royal tombs and covered the outdoor Spanish garden, the effect was deadly. Rows of scrawny wooden chairs were inexplicably everywhere, and the image of protagonists (including King Philip II of Spain) moving them around created out-of-place humor.
But Verdi triumphed with one of his most sublime vocal and instrumental scores (ah, those cellos and horns). The orchestra, under the expert Corrado Rovaris, played superbly, projecting subtleties and rich colors. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung, recuperating from illness, got through some of the role of Princess Eboli, difficult even on a good day. Tenor Dimitri Pittas was an acceptable Don Carlo when not whiny or off pitch; as Elisabeth, soprano Leah Crocetto conveyed both tenderness and determination in voice and demeanor.
Then there were the stars. Baritone Troy Cook as Rodrigo was riveting vocally and interpretively, a future Verdi baritone. Bass Morris Robinson’s Grand Inquisitor was overwhelming in the vast size and expressiveness of his gorgeous voice, and in his height and football-player physique. Although the tenor is the title character, King Philip is the crux of the story and the main reason for staging Don Carlo. Opera Philadelphia’s coup was world-renowned bass-baritone Eric Owens, Philly native and graduate of Central, Temple, and Curtis. His extraordinary voice and depth of interpretation projected every nuance of this complex, tormented figure, while his imposing regal presence also revealed tragic humanity. The confrontation between king and inquisitor was breathtaking. (This was the first time that these two roles have been portrayed by African-American singers in one production.)
Charles Gounod’s Faust, which premiered in 1859, has been an audience favorite ever since with famous arias for every major role and a goosebump-guaranteeing final scene. The Academy of Vocal Arts staged a worthy version, directed by Albert Filoni and the legendary Tito Capobianco. Reproductions of medieval and Renaissance art provided gorgeous backdrops that were appropriate to every scene yet never overshadowed singers or action.
But perhaps AVA should have borrowed some of those Don Carlo chairs: There was hardly any furniture, resulting in lots of floor-sitting and -lying, at odds with the 16th-century costumes and magnificent paintings.
Musically, it was outstanding, starting with the conducting of Christofer Macatsoris and the excellent response by the AVA Opera Theater Orchestra. The cast was near-perfect. Faust is one of several French roles ideal for tenor Diego Silva’s voice; his portrayal was effective, if a bit stiff. Soprano Melinda Whittington was a sweet-voiced, vulnerable Marguerite, and tall, lanky Alexandra Schenk both looked right in the trouser role of the lovesick Siébel and sang with a warm mezzo timbre. Michael Adams’s rich yet supple baritone and his portrayal were equally romantic and dramatic as Valentin, and bass André Courville stole the show as a vocally and dramatically quintessential Méphistophélès.
Bizarre humor, tender moments
Worlds away musically but in a similar story, Satan (here Nick Shadow) bought Tom Rakewell’s soul in Stravinsky’s 1951 work, The Rake’s Progress, masterfully presented by Curtis Opera Theatre. Director Jordan Fein, a font of clever touches; scenic designer Amy Rubin; and costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter captured the often-bizarre humor as well as the tender moments of the ingenious libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The 18th-century-plus-modern images mirrored the score perfectly. The Curtis orchestra and conductor Mark Russell Smith (Curtis ’87) were in full command of the ever-changing music. A true ensemble of singer-actors starred Elena Perroni, smooth-voiced and heartrending as Anne Trulove; bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, vocally and dramatically moving as her father; guest baritone Garrett Obrycki, appropriately sleazy yet cunningly warm-voiced as Shadow; and tenor Roy Hage, the ideal Tom, combining beautiful voice and handsome presence with the irresistible naiveté that almost makes Tom’s selfishness forgivable and gives poignancy to his fate.
Since 2002, Concert Operetta Theater has offered entertaining concert performances of some 25 operettas. I enjoyed their recent Fledermaus enormously because I love it anyway and because the very good singers threw themselves into the sly humor and wonderful music with verve. As Adele, soprano Christine Chenes was a natural comedienne singing effortlessly. Mezzo Jennifer Hsiung, an AVA grad, was a well-sung, ever-blasé Prince Orlofsky. Tenor John Myers, soprano Laura Maria Reyes, and baritone Brian Ming Chu were fun as Eisenstein, Rosalinda, and Dr. Falke. Jonas Hacker’s Alfredo-the-Tenor and soprano Anush Avetisyan as guest singer at Orlofsky’s party demonstrated why they are resident artists at super-selective AVA. Pianists José Meléndez and Michael Sherman were an orchestra.
Above right: The AVA’s production of Faust.