Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Incredible Lightness of Bellini

[This is my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of I Puritani for KDHX-FM.]

Anyone who doubts the importance of luck in human affairs need only look at the history of I Puritani, the last opera of Vincenzo Bellini. In January of 1835 the former Sicilian prodigy (he was playing the piano at 3 and composing by the age of 6), now 33, was living in Paris, enjoying the profits from a string of hits that included Norma and La Sonnambula, and overseeing the premiere of what would be his valedictory work. It was an immense success - so much so that Bellini had to make cuts in the score to allow for the frequent ovations. When the San Carlo Theatre in Naples asked for a star vehicle for the noted soprano Maria Malibran, therefore, Bellini offered a revised I Puritani. They accepted and Bellini set to work, revising some numbers, cutting others, changing the role of Riccardo from a baritone to a tenor, and collapsing the three acts into two.

At this point Lady Luck (to quote a Guys and Dolls lyric) “blows on some other guy's dice”. A cholera epidemic disrupted European communication, causing the revised I Puritani to arrive in Naples too late for the 1835 season. It might have been rescheduled for 1836 but Malibran died from injuries sustained in a horseback riding accident on September 23rd of that year - exactly one year, to the day, after Bellini himself had died in France from acute dysentery resulting from an improperly-treated amebic infection. What are the odds?

The “Naples” version of I Puritani was refused by San Carlo and was thought lost until 1986, when it finally had its premiere at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari. This is the edition currently on view at Opera Theatre, giving local audiences a rare chance to see a performance of Bellini's finale ultimo. It's a solid production, with brilliant singing, generally fine orchestral playing, and staging that avoids getting in the way of the music. If you're a fan of Bellini's lilting melodies and the vocal pyrotechnics of bel canto singing, you won't want to miss it.

As music drama, however, I Puritani is something of a non-starter. Set in England during the religious civil war of the 1640s, the story (such as it is) centers on the rivalry between Royalist Arthur (Arturo) Talbot and Puritan Sir Richard (Riccardo) Forth for the hand of Elvira, daughter of the Puritan Governor of Plymouth, Lord Walton. Although betrothed by her father to Riccardo, Elvira loves Arturo. Her Uncle George (Giorgio) convinces his brother to accept Arturo as a son-in-law, but wedding plans are disrupted when Arturo helps Charles I's widow, Queen Henrietta, to escape the headsman's axe. All eventually ends happily when a victorious Oliver Cromwell declares a historically inaccurate amnesty for all prisoners, allowing Arturo and Elvira to wed.

If this strikes you as thin stuff for an opera that runs nearly three hours including intermission, you'd be right. Happily, there's plenty of beautiful music and great singing to sustain your interest when the plot goes into suspended animation.

Soprano Pamela Armstrong, who sang a great Mimi for OTSL in 2001, is a stunning Elvira. The role is a major challenge; Elvira is rarely off stage, has the widest emotional range of any of the characters, and goes through multiple “mad” scenes. Armstrong handles it all with ease.

Tenor John Osborn is a forceful Riccardo and mezzo Gloria Parker, who showed such comic skill in Street Scene last season, proves equally convincing the small dramatic role of Queen Henrietta. Bass Arthur Woodley got a chorus of well-deserved “bravos” for powerful voice and strong stage presence as Giorgio.

If they ever start handing out the operatic equivalent of a Purple Heart, tenor Frédéric Antoun surely deserves one for delivering a good and even, at times, great performance as Arturo, despite being heavily medicated for allergy symptoms. Although clearly in vocal distress during the first act, Antoun rallied in the second and was clearly much appreciated by the opening night audience.

Stephen Lord does his usual fine work with the Opera Theatre orchestra. Sandra Horst's chorus sounds powerful and precise, and director Chas Rader-Schieber delivers some interesting stage pictures, even if he does sometimes have his singers a bit too far apart during intimate moments.

Go see I Puritani, then, for the intoxicating music, David Zinn's fine period costumes and, above all, for the spectacular singing. This time Lady Luck blew on our dice and not “some other guy's”.

Opera Theatre's I Puritani runs through June 24th [2007] the Loretto-Hilton Center. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information of visit the web site,

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Marrakesh Express

[This is my review of Circus Flora's Marrakesh for KDHX-FM]

“Just join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high. Pitch your troubles under a tent and you're bound to loose 'em by and by.” -- “Join the Circus” from Barnum (lyrics by Michael Stewart)

Summer isn't our best season here in St. Louis. What with the heat, humidity, bugs, storms, and endless road construction, even we natives wouldn't be surprised to see Virgil leading Dante on a sightseeing tour. But there's one harbinger of summer to which everyone can look forward: the annual visit of Circus Flora. For around two hours and some change you can “pitch your troubles” under the red and white big top next to Powell Hall and be amazed and entertained by some of the world's finest circus performers.

The show this year is entitled Marrakesh and there is, as usual, a story line, delivered with her customary aplomb by Circus Flora Theatre Director Cecil MacKinnon in her persona of Yo-Yo, the Narrator. This time around it has something to do with disappearing guests at a party in Marrakesh, with the elephant Dondi as Charlie Chan. If you can't quite follow it, don't worry. It's only there to link the individual acts which are, by turns, elegant, thrilling, and hilarious.

Marrakesh features the customary mix of old friends and new discoveries. Katja Schumann and her graceful horses are back, as are the exuberant and talented St. Louis Arches. The tumbling and acrobatic youth troupe of the Circus Day Foundation, the Arches have become a traditional favorite, especially with the younger set. Ditto the Ianna Spirit Riders, the only youth circus bareback riding ensemble in the country and another product of the Circus Day Foundation.

Kids and adults alike will also be happy to see the return of Nino (Giovanni Zoppé), whose inspired clowning runs throughout the show. A kind of circus jack-of-all-trades (juggler, clown, aerialist), Nino demonstrates yet another skill this year: bareback riding (I sense a recurring theme here), in combination with the elegant Tosca Zoppé.

The Flying Wallendas are back as well with their trademark multi-person pyramid on the high wire. This time there are three instead of the usual seven, but when two of the three are on bicycles, it's still a heart-stopper - especially when they're working, as always, without a net.

Easily the flashiest of the new acts (new to me, at least) is Alesya Goulevich, Guinness World Record holder for the largest number of hula hoops spun at one time. Her performance is a fast-paced mix of juggling, dancing and acrobatics, culminating in that word record spin, during which she turns into a veritable human slinky. It's a spectacular display of muscle control and coordination; don't miss it.

Newcomers Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether are pretty flashy as well, with a gravity-defying silk act that combines the grace of classical dance with the strength and control of gymnastics. Later in the evening, Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski does an equestrian variation on the aerial silk theme, assisted by his students Rosie Eastman and Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan. The trio spins and flies around the ring on silk streamers in a stylish airborne ballet.

They don't get into the very top of the tent, however. That area is reserved for The Flying Pages, a remarkable family of trapeze artists whose youngest member, Mercedes, is clearly still in grade school. Anthony Page's triple somersault is a highlight, but they're all impressive.

It wouldn't be a circus without dog act, and this year it's the comedy antics of Pino (Diane Wasnak) and Bonzer. Wasnak's Pino is a Chaplinesque figure engaged in a running battle with a charismatic black and white Australian Shepherd over possession of a derby hat and top billing. There are also plenty of laughs - and even a few thrills - in the two appearances of Circus Flora's new elephant, Dondi. At least for this show, Dondi's bag of tricks isn't especially large, but the affection between her and her trainers, the Schacht family, makes it all charming.

Circus Flora will continue to entertain and delight through June 24th [2007] in Grand Center, right next to Powell Symphony Hall. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site,, where you can also read up on the company and view some impressive photos of previous seasons.

Maybe you can't really “join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high”, but you can marvel at it for a couple of hours in air-conditioned comfort. Add a slushie and some popcorn and you're a kid again. Who says there's no fountain of youth?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Love and Death

[This is the text of my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Anna Karenina for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

This seems to be the Year of Fallen Women at Opera Theatre. Hard on the high heels of a stellar La Traviata comes an equally stunning production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. Both operas revolve around heroines who sacrifice all for love and pay dearly for it in terms of social ostracism and an early demise. Dramatically, however, they're worlds apart. Traviata, for all its strengths, is clearly the product of late 19-century sensibilities. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, is a masterful re-interpretation of those sensibilities for early 21st-century audiences.

The libretto is the valedictory work of the late Colin Graham, Opera Theatre's Artistic Director. It's a grand finale for a long and illustrious career, beautifully illustrating the dramatic and philosophical dimensions of the story. In his program notes, Graham criticizes earlier stage and film adaptations of what is generally considered Tolstoy's most personal novel for short-changing the character of Levin, who poses the novel's central questions about the meaning of life. Graham's adaptation restores Levin - who is generally considered a self-portrait of Tolstoy - to his proper place, restoring the appropriate gravitas to what is otherwise a tragic and somewhat sordid love story.

That story centers on two love narratives - one ascending into light and the other descending into darkness and death. The former is that of Levin and Kitty, the latter that of Anna and Count Vronsky.

Married to the solid but work-obsessed bureaucrat Alexei Karenin, Anna finds herself attracted to the dashing and somewhat self-centered Vronsky. When she finds herself pregnant with Vronsky's child, her marriage disintegrates followed, eventually, by her relationship with Vronsky, which can't stand up to the pressures of social ostracism and Anna's slow descent into madness and drug addiction. Meanwhile, Levin's love for Kitty (the sister of Anna's sister-in-law, Dolly) survives initial rejection and is finally returned. As Levin's life blossoms and Anna's withers, he constantly searches for meaning in the bewildering mix of sorrow and joy that swirls around him. In the end it falls to his young wife and old nurse Agafia to open his eyes - the former by showing him the smile on his baby son's face and the latter by reminding him that “we cannot all be saints, but we can learn to love our neighbors, and to be loved”.

“To love another person is to see the face of God”, as they sing at the end of Les Miserables.

Graham's libretto moves through the complex story with a cinematic clarity and grace, so it's only appropriate that David Carlson's neo-romantic score often has the openly descriptive character of a really great film soundtrack. It's a quality that I noted - and admired - in his previous work for Opera Theatre, 1993's Midnight Angel. The final pages, as Levin embraces life and his family, are positively luminous. Let's hope it finds a permanent place in the repertory.

Superior words and music, of course, can easily be undone by an inferior cast - which is most certainly not the case here. Soprano Kelly Kaduce adds to her previous Opera Theatre successes with an exemplary performance in the demanding title role, which includes passion, madness and not one but two death scenes. Equally impressive is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Karenin. Graham and Carlson have given the character some intensely moving scenes, and Van Horn makes the most of them. The opening night audience apparently agreed, judging from the response to his curtain call.

Tenor Brandon Javonovich, who was such a splendid Essex in Gloriana two years ago, is in fine form as Levin. Being the bearer of the Author's Message can be quite a challenge for an actor, but Javonovich rises to it.

Sopranos Christine Abraham and Sarah Coburn are also excellent as the forgiving Dolly, married to Anna's infidelity-prone brother Stiva, and the sadder but wiser (to say nothing of happier) Kitty. Abraham made her debut with OTSL in Midnight Angel - where she played the title role - so it only seems fitting that she should return now.

Bass-baritone Robert Gierlach and tenor William Joyner are vocally strong as Vronsky and Stiva, but not entirely convincing dramatically. Joyner, in particular, is prone to a certain stiffness which, combined with his height and moustache, conjured up images of John Cleese in his Monty Python days. Two of the smallest roles, however, get the best performances of the evening, both from mezzo-sopranos. Dorothy Byrne is the very embodiment of self-congratulatory moral sadism as Countess Lydia Ivanova and Metropolitan Opera veteran Rosalind Elias is all earthy wisdom as Agafia, who puts everything in perspective at the end.

Stewart Robertson conducted what sounded to me, at least, like a polished and sympathetic reading of the score that only rarely threatened to drown the singers. Stage Director Mark Streshinsky keeps the action flowing seamlessly through the many changes of scene, aided by Neil Patel minimalist sets, which use a small number of easily-moved items to firmly fix each separate time and place. Mark McCullough's lighting is very effective as well, providing everything from a golden glow for Levin's pastoral home to a blinding spotlight for Anna's suicide by locomotive.

Opera Theatre's Anna Karenina is, in short, another winner - which makes Graham's absence all the more poignant. This was, after all, a nearly life-long project, having started out as collaboration with the late Benjamin Britten in 1968. Still, he died doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky.

Anna Karenina continues through June 21st in rotating repertory at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For ticket information, you may call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site. While you're at it, consider tickets for the Colin Graham tribute concert that Opera Theatre is presenting on June 19th. Performers will include Christine Brewer, Sylvia McNair and other Opera Theatre artists along with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The concert will benefit the Colin Graham Master Artists Endowment Fund.