Rake progresses at Curtis

Often I dislike schtick in opera staging. A mannered, heightened non-reality frequently leads to cliché: a reliance on a narrow vocabulary of gestures and expressive possibilities and thus a fussy and old-fashioned style of opera. I’d rather see something new and real. But there are many exceptions and I think Stravinsky and Auden’s The Rake’s Progress is one of the few operas where some sense of schtick is sort of necessary. Because this is a postmodern piece, an opera which operates self-consciously and at a degree of remove from itself. It dryly, dispassionately, brutally enacts cliché in the form of musical forms, styles, and plot devices long thought dead. That ain’t recitative. That’s ironic recitative.

With Rake, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. And when you collapse those layers the result isn’t very interesting. Such is the result of this Curtis Opera Theater production, at least, probably the first disappointing production I’ve seen from this formidable school. I admit that this was the first time I’d seen Rake live in a theater (I would have liked to see the Met production but my giant pile of grading forbade it), so my experience is rather limited. But while the production was musically quite rewarding, something was a little off.

Jordan Fein’s production rarely stops moving and tells the story in good style. But it also openly courts sympathy and humanity in a way that is difficult to reconcile with this cold, dry text and its angular music–or at least one that didn’t quite come off. It’s hard to feel much for a character stupid enough to believe, as Tom Rakewell does, in a machine that turns rocks into bread. But the principals act with relative naturalism, their action less tightly controlled and carefully choreographed than, say, last fall’s manic Gianni Schicchi

Amy Rubin’s attractive unit set provides one surreal element, a single unchanging room whose curtains occasionally billow inwards, propelled by some sinister wind. (This and the staging also suggest that the whole thing might have been a dream. Which, as a Konzept, doesn’t really pass.) Assorted chairs and tables make up the rest of the set; Ásta Hostetter’s colorful costumes are also on the schticky side, particularly among the chorus, who are characterized with broader strokes. Anne Trulove, appropriately, remains steadfast in the same dress for the whole opera. (Sorry, I haven’t found any photos.)

Anne is the character who comes off best here, though I suspect that is often true. Rachel Sterrenberg has a sweet and light soprano which carries well. The character doesn’t have a lot of depth–such is the peril of attempting a straight-faced staging of a postmodern piece–but Sterrenbrg made her sincere and honest. In the title role, French-Canadian tenor Jean-Michel Richer sounded very impressive: a substantial, musical lyric tenor which sounds destined for Faust and Alfredo. His tone is a little denser and, er, richer than one might expect to hear in English-language rep. The effect was not at all bad, though in a few places his English was. But there are more standard rep operas in French than in English, after all. As Nick Shadow, Thomas Shivone was loud and deep but occasionally sounded more buffo than menacing; the staging didn’t really help him out with the menace either. Lauren Eberwein was a glam, silent film-star style Baba the Turk (who didn’t seem to deserve the treatment she got) and made every work intelligible–even though the text-setting in this opera intentionally confounds intelligibility. (I saw one of two casts; I was there on Saturday night.)

Curtis doesn’t train choral singers, and the chorus was made up of a small number of obvious soloists (only around 10). The result was poorly blended and not great, and there is a fair amount of choral singing here. The orchestra, however, was much improved over March’s Ariadne, and Mark Russell Smith’s conducting kept things taut and energized.

Not Curtis’s best, but nonetheless an impressive showing for any school.

Stravinsky and Auden, The Rake’s Progress. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, 3/9/15.

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Ariadne auf Philadelphia

Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature–we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”–it’s hardly the production’s only feature.

This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.

Ariadne auf Naxos. Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Opera co-production, 3/4/15. Production directed by Chas Rader Schieber, sets by David Zinn, cosumes by Jacob Climer, lights by Mike Inwood, conducted by George Manahan with Heather Stebbins (Ariadne), Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta), Kevin Ray (Bacchus), Lauren Eberwein (Composer).

Let’s start with the production first. The prologue is set in a Brutalist bunker of some modern one-percent Richest Man (sets are by David Zinn). The Composer is an earnest prepster while the comedians are relaxed Californian types.  While the setting is contemporary, nothing is really updated–this is a text which is colloquial enough that it doesn’t have to be and the modern dress fits in very well. It’s a shame that the very concise surtitles leave out many of the funniest lines (and sometimes they just don’t make sense–why change the desert island to just a desert?). It’s also laid-back and almost naturalistic in style, without being slow–or at least it is less cartoonish than one often sees (a few moments such as Bacchus’s wig excepted). This works well in the small theater.


Considering what we know about the Richest Man, it’s quite fitting that the opera should take place among a vaguely sea-themed collection of pricey modern art (a Damien Hirst-esque shark and golden skull, an ocean photograph, some neon art). Ariadne is surrounded by a circle of stones. The opera seria people, including the nymphs and Bacchus, are all in white, while the comedy crew eventually roll/walks in, Flintstones style, in the Professor’s bamboo car.

Personally, I’ve always hoped for a Lost or Survivor Ariadne, but Gilligan’s Island is more visually distinctive and, well, probably fits the opera audience demographic more closely (even though it aired well before the entire cast–or I–was born). My careful internet research (=Google) suggests that Zerbinetta is Ginger, Harlequin is Gilligan, and the other comedy guys are Thurston Howell III, the Skipper, and the Professor. It’s a pretty good, entertaining frame for the piece, contrasting the arty (but, of course, extremely commodified) world of high and modern art with the world of TV. It was obvious that this audience is more on the side of TV. I don’t think I needed this production to figure that out. But the uproarious response to the references brings out the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in unusually direct, vivid fashion. The two sides also interact more than in many productions–particularly the nymphs.

The ending is a more difficult matter. To be fair, no one knows what to do with this: Bacchus arrives and is transformed, Ariadne is transformed, there is talk of a “love cave,” they both sing about this very loudly (personally I love this incredibly garish music but it is a difficult thing to deal with in context) and at length but it’s unclear if there is any way to depict transformation visually. It’s not Daphne. I’ve seen it staged straight, straight again, ironically, and as high kitsch, and, yeah, it’s always still a puzzle. This production puts Bacchus in the white clothes of the seria characters, and the effect is rather of an elderly cult leader finding his new acolyte. I’m not sure if that’s really where we want to go.


(I brought a number of Swarthmore German and music students to the dress rehearsal of this production, though I also went to opening night and am reviewing that here. I am saying this to thank Curtis and Opera Philadelphia for having us and to quote one of our students, who said, “Bacchus has to be a pick-up artist, right? You wanna get onto my ship?”)


Now for the singing: honestly, I’m not quite sure of the best approach–this is presented by Opera Philadelphia and the students are all extremely talented, but they are students and there are some things they haven’t quite mastered yet. The most complete performances in the cast were given by Lauren Eberwein as the Composer and Ashley Milanese as Zerbinetta. Eberwein has a full, slightly dark mezzo which is just the right color for Strauss, and she has no problem with the high notes. She ripped through the role with unwavering committment and enthusiasm. The soft parts weren’t as easy as the loud parts and her German could be better, but it was an exciting performance. Milanese is also exciting, and already has the technique to sing a very accomplished Zerbinetta. Her voice is light but not thin, the coloratura is good, and her only real hurdle is a spotty trill. Acting-wise, she was likeable and effective without quite putting together all the pieces into a full character.

As Ariadne, Heather Stebbins has a big, bright, cutting voice. She’s also a convincing, specific actress, was touching in her opening scenes, and did all the heavy lifting in the finale. But her ideas weren’t always coming through in her singing, which lacked a degree of finesse and control. She is definitely a talent to watch, however. Class of 2012 tenor Kevin Ray sang Bacchus, and he got through the part with somewhat leathery, unvarying tone. (Why do so few Bacchuses react to their own transformations, by the way?) In smaller roles, Johnathan McCullough was an agreeable Harlequin, Dogukan Kuran a good Wigmaker, and the three nymphs had serious blending problems. As the Major-Domo, Dennis Chmelensky had extremely good German (he may BE German? not sure).

One disappointment was the orchestra, under George Manahan. This is hardly ever a problem for Curtis but the prelude and prologue showed some rhythmic uncertainty and ensemble issues. The second half was better, and some of the solo playing was outstanding.

Still, I highly recommend this opportunity to see a fun production in a small theater. The production runs through Sunday; it is sold out but returns may be available.

Postscript, 3/9: I read this Inquirer review with interest (and only after I wrote the above). I think I understand the criticism that the cultural references are too specific, but it’s not something that occurred to me at all because, well, I’m not so tuned in with Gilligan’s Island. It took some research for me to figure out how specific they were. I am kind of amused, however, that the newspaper’s high art critic is so much more receptive to high art references (Hirst, Richter) than low culture ones (TV).

Previously here in Ariadne auf Naxos:
By the book at the Met Opera (the inspiration for my blog’s header image)
A very old production at the Wiener Staatsoper
An unusual, interesting production at the Theater an der Wien
“Ur-iadne”: the 1912 version at the Salzburg Festival with some of the kitschiest sets I have ever seen


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Opera groups: Rossini wants you to post
production photos on the Internet!

The stars must have aligned, and they must favor Rossini. All three of Philadelphia’s opera groups have presented his work this fall. I loved Opera Philadelphia’s goofy Barber of Seville, but as it happens the other two opera companies are schools. Of course, the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute are two of the very best training grounds for singers in the country. But when I saw AVA’s L’italiana in Algeri and Curtis Opera Theater’s La scala di seta this week, I was frequently reminded just how difficult this music is. Approximatura, wildly out of tune and/or strained high notes, and white-knuckle Rossini crescendos galore–not the kind of thing you usually hear from students of these extremely distinguished institutions. I’m sure these were educational experiences for the singers, you have to start somewhere, but as an audience member it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I’m going to accentuate the positive here; if I leave some major role out that means I thought the singer wasn’t ready for prime time yet. (AVA, by the way, insists their “resident artists” are professionals, but based on this performance they are all very much works in progress.)

Let’s start with the awesome, and not-Rossini, part: Curtis followed the short La scala di seta with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Granted, Gianni Schicchi is a hard act to top with anything, but this one was the most uproarious hour of opera you could imagine. Together with the Curtis’s crack orchestra (conducted by Lio Kuokman), it was loud, energetic, and dramatically alive. Stephanie Havey’s production is a cartoonish farce, taking place in a bank vault, the floor littered with coins and various signs of wealth all around. (The sets are by Brandon McNeel and look great. How Curtis manages to consistently surpass the production values of many regional-level opera companies beats me. It also baffles me as to how I am unable to find any photos of these excellent designs!) The production was updated as well as aggressively localized, with the surtitles moving Signa to Jersey, mentioning cheesesteak, giving poor Buoso a casino in Atlantic City, making Schicchi a Democrat from the suburbs, and so on. It’s cute, funny, and, together with the manic committment of the cast, really works.

The cast included several singers who really stood out: Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful Gianni Schicchi with the look and apparent guilelessness of Andy Dwyer, only smarter, and sang with a medium-sized, exceptionally musical baritone, really making something special of his brief monologues. Evan LeRoy Johnson as Rinuccio has a sweet and ringing lyric tenor, and Kirsten MacKinnon’s smoky lyric soprano sounded intriguing as Ciesca and I wish she had sang more. (Note: most roles are double-cast and I saw the November 21 performance.)

Curtis preceded this with Rossini’s La scala di seta, which was new to me. The set gave us a steampunk confection of old scientific instruments, gears, and a mixture of present and historic images. I couldn’t figure out a logic behind this, but it looked nifty. More importantly, Havey and the cast kept a good balance between comedy and character development. Seemingly minor characters like servant Germano (sung by Dogukan Kuran) became big comic hams, failed suitor Blansac a dandy short on self-awareness, and Giulia a popular girl who knows how to get what she wants. Singing-wise, none of the cast members were totally consistent, though all had some strong moments. Johnathan McCullogh as Blansac seemed the most suited to Rossini, as well as showing excellent comic timing.

The Academy of Vocal Arts’s production of L’italiana in Algeri was less happy. AVA has a very distinguished record of producing famous singers–relatively recent grads include Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Stephen Costello–but despite some great voices their shows are rarely as polished as Curtis’s. They trade in the kind of über-traditional productions which dare you to suggest that opera is about anything other than la voce, and tend to produce exclusively warhorse operas. The repertoire makes sense for the students, but I can’t help but wonder about the stogy stagings. Dorothy Danner’s schtick-heavy production trapped the cast in convention and cliché, and none of them appeared to connect to the drama and to each other in the organic way the (mostly less experienced) Curtis singers did.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because at this performance circumstances conspired against everyone. After their main run in Philadelphia, AVA brings their productions out for a single evening on the Main Line, which was the performance I attended. Heating problems necessitated a last minute change of venue from the Haverford School to Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. Goodhart is possessed neither of orchestra pit nor surtitles but is endowed with a cavernous cathedral ceiling which did nothing for solo voices. It also positioned the orchestra behind the singers, and lacks a Maestrocam-type monitor–meaning the singers had no eye contact with the conductor, hence the aforementioned white-knuckle Rossini crescendos. For the audience, the loss of the surtitles was the gravest blow. This is a funny opera, but most people were barely following the plot and no one was laughing at the jokes. This took a lot of air out of the proceedings, and I wished they’d simply postponed the opera until they could perform it properly. I liked that the orchestra went to the length to find a mezzaluna, however I wished its sounds had been as impressive as its looks. It loomed over the orchestra yet produced the sound of a few decorative jingle bells hung on a door.

I doubt this weird venue showed the singers at the best. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Hannah Ludwig’s performance in the title role. She has a deep, chocolatey mezzo and a likeable stage presence. Michael Adams was impressive as Taddeo, and André Courville, as Mustafa, showed an excellent lyric bass, unfortunately combined with a rather stiff stage manner. (AVA is also mostly double-cast; I saw the November 18 performance.)

Winter in Philadelphia will be less Rossinian: AVA performs La bohème in February and Curtis does Ariadne auf Naxos in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. Curtis will finish their year with The Rake’s Progress, and AVA with, in warhorse fashion, Faust.

Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. Academy of Vocal Arts, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Maw College, November 18, 2014
La scala di seta and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi. Curtis Opera Theater at
the Prince Music Theater, Philadelphi, November 21, 2014.

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