03 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 15: The Rest of the Fest

“A three-handkerchief” finale, according to my godmother:
Mimì (Mary Dunleavy) and Rodolfo (Sean Panikkar) reunite.
This and all Bohème photos courtesy of Ellen Appel.

The Fort Worth Opera Festival reaches its peak this weekend, when all four operas will be performed. I’ve written a bit already about Glory Denied, Tom Cipullo’s contemporary opera, but it’s high time that I told you a bit about Fort Worth’s productions of Puccini’s La Bohème and Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment — since Bohème final performance is tonight.

David Lefkowich’s staging of Bohème goes farther than any I’ve seen to embrace the comedy of this opera. Yet he doesn’t overwhelm the romantic and dramatic elements — on the contrary, he heightens them. We really get the sense that Rodolfo and his friends are carefree kids. They’re poor, yes, but that doesn’t get them down. Mimì’s illness and death are the first real sorrows they’ve known, and as a result, the end of the opera takes on a greater significance and makes a deeper impact.

Mary Dunleavy as Mimì.

Mary Dunleavy is exquisite as Mimì. Her pure, soaring soprano voice that leaves a listener wanting more — extra acts, longer arias, a sequel, anything. How is it possible that Puccini didn’t anticipate the absolute need we’d be feeling right now? And tenor Sean Panikkar is just as terrific as Rodolfo, with his zesty, virile timbre and thoroughly credible stage presence. For whatever reason, the end of this opera doesn’t make me cry, but the beginning does: the joy of discovery when Mimì and Rodolfo meet and the sweetness of the promise of their love knock me out. Mary and Sean had me sniffling and daubing at my eyes from start to finish.

One of the pleasures of coming to this Festival over the years is the sense of becoming part of a community. That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear the young singers Rosa Betancourt and Wes Mason, who’ve returned to the company to sing Musetta and Marcello. They impressed me so much when they started out — Wes in the tour-de-force lead of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, for mercy’s sake — and now they’re fulfilling their early promise. They’re sexy, gorgeous singers, and they’re all grown up. I feel proud, somehow, though all I did was sit and listen.

Relationship troubles: Musetta and Marcello spat
while Rodolfo and Mimì make up.

Aaron Sorensen has got to be the youngest Benoît and Alcindoro in the history of La Bohème, with the possible exception of grade-school productions in remote corners of Italy. He’s wonderfully funny in both his scenes — as he is in Ariadne auf Naxos, in which he plays the Wigmaker. And baritone Michael Adams, who sings the Customs Officer in Bohème and the Lackey in Ariadne, is another young talent to watch: I fully expect in a few years to be as absurdly proud of these guys as I am of Rosa and Wes.

Roommates in Montmartre: Rodolfo (Sean Panikkar), Schaunard (John Boehr), Colline (Derrick Parker), and Marcello (Wes Mason).

John Boehr and Derrick Parker are the other roommates. While Schaunard is a tough part — he’s central to the hijinks in Acts I and IV, yet doesn’t really get the spotlight at any point — Boehr really makes something of it. I especially liked his awkwardness in Act IV, when Mimì returns: unable to tell jokes, Boehr’s Schaunard doesn’t quite know what to do, and he conveys the helplessness they all feel. Colline gets one of Bohème’s greatest moments, the farewell to the overcoat, and Parker’s tender, sonorous account of the aria is spellbinding. He gives you the feeling that Colline knows his sacrifice is futile — but it’s all he has to offer.

Joe Illick does a great job conducting, with a sure grasp of the supple rhythms and a genuine appreciation for the little details — like the ingeniously orchestrated “frosty morning” music that opens Act III — that, as much as the big, famous arias, make this opera so special and so hard to resist.

Vive la France! Avé, Ava!
Photo courtesy of Ron T. Ennis.

The Daughter of the Regiment is another critter altogether, and Dorothy Danner’s production is astonishing: she’s got a background in dance, and she choreographs the entire piece, which makes the proceedings seem even livelier and more fun. The Fort Worth Opera chorus proves itself yet again to be populated by authentic stage animals, and they’re game for anything Danner throws their way. The performance is entirely in English, which makes this a great show for younger audiences — and those who are new to opera and maybe a bit intimidated. Nothing scary is going on here. And best of all, Danner is working with a cast of terrific comic actors who happen to be terrific singers, too.

Ava Pine is perhaps the best representative of what I mean when I talk about the community of Fort Worth Opera. She went to school in Fort Worth and she’s sung with this company for several years, with roles in Angels in America, The Elixir of Love, Julius Caesar, and Lysistrata; she’s coming back next year, too, in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night. (Her repertory here spans nearly 400 years. Unbelievable.) Audiences anywhere would clasp Ava to their collective bosom, but in Fort Worth she taps into a distinctively Texan kind of affection: they love her here, and the feeling is mutual. When she sings with Fort Worth Opera, she’s home.

Each time I hear Ava, she finds new ways to thrill me, and in Daughter it’s the combination of vocal and physical acrobatics. She’s a natural physical comedienne, and somehow this doesn’t detract from her singing the long lines of the enchanting “Il faut partir” or the dazzling coloratura of “Chacun le sait” and the rest of this spectacular role.

A soldier who sails on the high Cs: David Portillo as Tonio.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

Tenor David Portillo has plenty of fireworks, too, including the notorious “Ah! Mes amis,” which includes nine high Cs — at the end of which, he collapses among his fellow soldiers. It’s a sight gag, though, because he’s got the high Cs and plenty of other notes to spare, in a bright, ringing, delicious voice.

Four of the five leads in this production are native Texans — the exception is baritone Rod Nelman, who sings Sergeant Sulpice, but he’s another of this company’s stalwarts and has probably earned the title of Honorary Texan by now. He adopts a burlesque of a French accent (think Inspector Clouseau), and his rapport with Ava is unbeatable: he’s a father figure one moment and the instigator of all her tomboy mischief the next.

The lesson scene: Rod Nelman (Sulpice), Joyce Castle (Marquise),
and Ava Pine (Marie).
Photo courtesy of Ron T. Ennis.

My beloved Joyce Castle, who was born in Beaumont, plays the Marquise de Birkenfeld, and it’s one of her signature roles, a showcase for her comedic skill, though I’d never seen her in the part before now. She can get laughs with the simplest gesture or turn of her head, and her big, warm voice embraces the music. A highlight of her performance is a sort of love song addressed to the bust of her dead lover, which she cradles tenderly while reclining on a divan.

Darren Woods has known Joyce longer than I have — just — and together they’re like a vaudeville team. He surely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in on the fun, and so, returning to the stage after 16 years, he’s hilarious as the Marquise’s valet, Hortensius.

The truth will out: Hortensius (Darren Woods) makes a declaration, to the surprise of the Duchess (J.R. Labbe)
and the Marquise (Joyce Castle).
Photo courtesy of Ron T. Ennis.

J.R. Labbe takes the speaking part of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, and she’s great fun, imperious and hardhearted; the show’s assistant director, Matthew Powell, is hilarious in the pantomime role of her milquetoast son. Christopher Larkin, whose work with this company I know from the contemporary operas Angels in America and Three Decembers, conducts with just the right energy, effervescent here, caressing there, and when the occasion calls for it, rousing enough to make us all enlist in the French army. If Chris is one of those conductors who disdains bel canto music, I can’t hear the evidence.

So if you’re looking for something to do this weekend — other than attending the opening-night performance of Ariadne auf Naxos and witnessing my debut with Fort Worth Opera — then reserve your tickets and get over to Bass Hall.

The girl can’t help it: Rosa Betancourt as Musetta.

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