The afternoon of Tuesday, July 25, was the start of an operatic “gauntlet” that would require the viewing of five operas in 31 hours - necessitated by my status as a Colorado expat.
If artistic magic had not been present throughout, this would have been an arduous task indeed. Below is one opera aficionado's review of the ongoing performances at Central City Opera's 2017 Festival.
Cosi fan tutte: 2:30 p.m. Tuesday
This Mozart masterpiece, the last comedy he was able to produce before his untimely death, is an embarrassing indictment of how ill-suited the privileged class of his time was for monogamy. After all, we’re much better at it in this day and age. Hmmm. Taking no prisoners, stage director Stephen Barlow makes his company debut by bringing the buffa to an “elite” university in the early 1900s. “Professor” Don Alfonso, rendered with great comic characterization and full-throttled bass-baritone by company favorite Patrick Carfizzi, has a vital lesson to teach to his students.
Scenic designer Andrew Edwards’ compact lecture hall effectively set the scene and did an easy “180” to make sure all action outside the classroom worked. In this performance, associate conductor Aaron Breid replaced company music director John Baril in the pit and inspired the orchestra towards an energetic and sensitive underpinning for the story.
But Cosi belongs to its principals. The opera’s two pairs of lovers truly became students in Barlow’s vision. What made this superior theater was his ability to play to the strengths of his cast. David Adam Moore’s Guglielmo mined comedy and energy from the character as seldom, if ever, seen. With flawless, strong baritone on board he ran the show. Matthew Plenk used his bright and focused tenor to full advantage but couldn’t match either the theatrical or vocal variety of Moore. Nonetheless, Barlow was able to fold him seamlessly into the story.
While I found the soprano of Hailey Clark as Fiordiligi and the mezzo Tamara Gura as Dorabella to be not ideal Mozartean voices, they steadily inhabited the vocal and theatrical challenges of their characters toward winning portrayals.
The character of Despina had to go through some changes to fit Barlow’s concept. No longer a maid, she became a college house mother to Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Mezzo Megan Marino made the most of this morph. She made a strong challenge to Moore to be the jewel of the production.
After 227 years, “Cosi fan tutte” was granted a surprise ending here, not to be revealed by this writer. It was delightful. This production continues in repertory through Aug. 4.
The Burning Fiery Furnace: Noon Wednesday
We were warned in Ken Cazan’s “Director’s Note” that this production of Benjamin Britten’s Church Parable “The Burning Fiery Furnace” was to be set “in a contemporary vein.” Hardly adequate preparation for what was to unfold up the hill from the opera house in the city’s Foundry.
The composer set out to realize a modern incarnation of the Old Testament’s recounting of a miracle. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar once hatched a devious plan to prevent three Jews from becoming lawful landlords of territories within his kingdom. As Cazan suggested, parallels to the current political and social realities in our world are inescapable here. After all, scripture and great art should never lose their relevance.
The audience howled as these devout men and women of the church began their story, not as figures from antiquity, but as characters that suggested President Trump, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and twin Kellyanne Conways. The chorus of holy men became devoted, reactionary followers while the three Jews were attired in more modern hasidic garb. Small wonder that when an Angel of the Lord appeared to save the faithful from their fiery fate she was wearing a silver pant suit with hair swept back in a neatly-coiffed silvery pompadour. Who could that have been?
Comedy was soon superseded by horror and great sadness as Cazan’s vision took firm control of our hearts.
In any guise, this is a brilliant piece and it was pointedly enhanced by the Christopher Zemliauskas-led chamber ensemble. There were no national or international stars here in the principal roles; just the essence of the Central City Opera experience: the company’s always remarkable Studio and Apprentice Artists. In this and the other two one act operas that opened on this day, the vocal and theatrical talent on display was overwhelming. The one casting exception here was the appearance of Developing Artist Bille Brully as the King - a role he vocally and theatrically nailed. From 8,500 feet, it looks like the future of opera is in great hands.
This production continues in repertory through Aug. 2.
Carmen: 2:30 p.m. Wednesday
With all of its color, drama and beauty, “Carmen” may be the most appealing of all operas. After two boldly re-imagined productions in this self-inflicted marathon I put myself into, here was a 100 percent traditional production.
This is true grand opera, always a challenge to realize on the small stage of this historic hall.
Director Jose Maria Condemi fared well in this. The many crowd scenes were a delight to witness as the company’s aforementioned Studio and Apprentice Artists and members of the Colorado Children’s Chorale took the ensemble’s vocal sounds and colorful characterizations as far as they could go.
The design team: David Martin Jacques, lighting; Michael B. Raiford, set; and Sara Jean Tosetti, costumes, created a fine canvas upon which to realize the miracle of George Bizet’s masterpiece. Adam Turner’s orchestra played with precision but not the full-blooded sound that distinguishes the composer’s innovation.
No doubt a sure-fire box office bonanza for the company, this production will leave opera devotees feeling strangely unsatisfied. Just not a lot to walk away with kvelling about. With one very big exception.
It did not take long to get that Adriano Graziani’s portrayal of Don José was something very special. Sure, the character seemed right and the voice had the appropriate tenor tone for the role - relatively easy finds in the opera world. But when José’s emotion’s started boiling up, Graziani hit those precious sounds with all the power, passion and poetry one could have possibly hoped for. It was a dream sound. His efforts alone make this Carmen a must see.
A very good thing, because there wasn’t much more to laud. This was the brilliant Emily Pulley’s first go at the title role. She never missed a theatrical beat and was able to ride us through the opera despite being an older and less sexually-sensational edition of this gypsy goddess. Vocally, her soprano was fine but, again, lacked the sultry undertones that Carmen must have to be the ultimate seductress.
As Michaela and Escamillio, soprano Angela Mortellaro and baritone Michael Mayes, were fine theatrically but miscast vocally. Mortellaro’s big, dramatic sound missed the precious lyricism of the opera’s only truly innocent character; Mayes was unable to render the unique blend of power and sensuality that make for a winning Toreador.
And yes, the singers “in training,” especially Tyler Putnam, Heidi Middendorf and Kira Dills-DeSurra, once again did the company proud in the realization of Carmen’s smaller roles.
This production continues in repertory through Aug. 6.
Cabildo and Gallantry: 8 p.m. Wednesday
The opening night performance of these one act operas in the city’s Stables should have been a marked drop off from the quality of all else that had come before. Not so. Even without nay sets to speak of, imaginative stage direction from Alison Moritz, tight musical direction from Christopher Zemliauskas and some outstanding performances from the company's Studio and Apprentice Artists combined to make this evening a real treat.
Written by Amy Beach, “Cabildo” is the biggest surprise of the season. Her only opera, it first performed in 1932 and is a well-crafted synthesis of multiple musical styles that delves into an enticing world of dreams and ghosts.
The story is overly-romantic and hokey but there’s nothing quite like it. Standout performances by Louise Rogan as Mary, Bryan Murray as Pierre Lafitte and Shannon Jennings as The Lady Valerie helped to fuel an effective suspension of disbelief against all theatrical odds.
With barely a moment’s repose, the Stables became a television studio. Moritz had the chance to really strut her stuff with Douglas Moore’s supremely silly “Gallantry” - a raucous ride behind the scenes of 1950s hospital soap opera. The comedy and invention was ceaseless as the cast, no doubt, went to places they never thought they would ever go.
The physical comedy and the actors’ timing was so spot on that the piece could have worked as pure theater. The performers that had singing roles- Ann Fogler, Zane Hill, Kaileigh Riess and Eric Taylor - proved themselves capable of any challenge the world of opera might present to them in their burgeoning careers.
No let down on the production values of either of these “secondary” offerings. Costumes by Stacie Logue and wigs and makeup by Ronell Oliveri sparkled in this space that had the audience virtually on top of the performers. The Central City Opera only knows one way to do things … and that’s the right way.
“Cabadilo” continues in tandem with “Gallantry” through Aug. 2; “Gallantry” continues on its own through Aug. 4.
Details and tickets for all remaining performances in Central City Opera’s 2017 Festival are available at centralcityopera.org and 303-292-6700.
David Sckolnik had been a fixture in the Colorado Springs artistic landscape for 20 years before moving to Florida in 2015. He now works for Opera Orlando as a marketing and special programs consultant.