Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

Opera Warhorses random header image

Rising Stars – An Interview with Eric Owens

February 4th, 2016

The following interview took place at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated.

 

[Below: Baritone Eric Owens; resized image of an Paul Sirochman photograph for IMG Artists.]

ERIC OWENS IMG Paul_Sirochman_Photography

Wm: I ask each of my interview subjects, what are your earliest memories of music, of vocal music, and of opera?

EO: My mom was an amateur pianist who would play gospel and some classical music. She believed that taking music lessons was required for a well-rounded person, so both by brother (two years older than myself) started piano when we were age six. I also played oboe in the school orchestra. In time, my oboe playing became quite good and played oboe professionally for many years.

My earliest memory of vocal music was listening to our church choir. I myself started to sing in junior high school choir.

About age seven or eight I would listen to classical music on the radio. When I was in junior high school one of my teachers would lend me LPs. These included recordings of Weber’s “Der Freischütz” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” that I would play over and over.

Wm: As a high school student, then, you were interested in both vocal and instrumental music.

EO: I kept taking piano lessons until my high school studies required a lapse there. I continued my oboe throughout my high school years. I was taking oboe lessons from Lloyd Shorter of the University of Delaware music department (then at the Germantown branch of Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School) and from Louis Rosenblatt, who was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s English horn player. In all, I studied oboe for a good eight years or so.

Wm: What was the result of your oboe studies?

EO: Beginning at age 14, I joined the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, benefiting during those years from such assistant conductors as Robert Spano and Peter Smith (who was also the Philadelphia Orchestra’s associate principal oboe player). At age 15 I first took part in the Eastern Music Festival in Greenboro, North Carolina, which was associated with one of the greatest principal clarinetists who has ever walked this planet, Ricardo Morales.

During the summers there was a professional orchestra in residence in Greensboro, so that I had the opportunity to study in the summers with Laura Ahlbeck, who, during the regular season, was the second oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Ahlbeck knew I was a lover of opera. For my first visit to the Met in 1985, she got me standing passes. My first opera was Puccini’s “Tosca” with Eva Marton as Tosca, Ermanno Mauro as Cavaradossi and Juan Pons as Scarpia. Then I saw Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” during Elizabeth Soderstrom’s farewell season. Soderstrom as the Marschallin was joined by Brigitte Fassbaender as Octavian and Barbara Hendricks as Sophie.

During the mid-1980s I saw the new production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” from the Met’s standing room. This was still a time when I thought my musical career would center on oboe playing. I had no idea that I would be in another new “Ring” production some 15 years later.

[Below: Eric Owens as Alberich in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Robert LePage production; edited image of a Ken Howard photograph.]

OWENS (400) ALBERICH

Wm: What caused you to veer away from your oboe career?

EO: When I was around 16 our high school choir director began to give me solos to sing. He thought he heard something in my voice that could be developed. I started taking voice lessons as a senior. I would still hang out with the orchestra, where I had many friends.

When I was a senior there was a young artists’ competition for high school seniors called ARTS, now called YoungArts. It included master classes by Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo.

I applied for the voice competition. I made it through the round where high school kids were invited to Miami, Florida. It was a competition that never felt like it, comprised of like-minded high school seniors. Symposia were performing for each other.  It was in Miami that I met opera singer Betty Allen. She became a wonderful mentor and friend. Another of my friends that I met there was Richie Hawley, who became principal clarinetist at the Cincinnati Symphony at age 23.

For my undergraduate degree I went to Temple University, studying voice under Professor George Massey.

Wm: When did you decide that you pursue a career in vocal performance?

EO:  I was already thinking ahead. I always had thought of the arts as being a business, but YoungArts in those days was not so much as now in people’s consciousness. I knew when I got out of graduate school, I would need recognition beyond credit for performing roles in university productions.

Wm: How did you go about getting that recognition?

EO: I started doing competitions. While I was still an undergraduate I started performing as a professional, developing a professional’s resume. I was in a Baltimore Opera competition. As a result, I was picked to perform Angelotti in “Tosca” and the Second Philistine in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”.

I won first prize at the Palm Beach Opera competition. There I meet soprano Angela Brown and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux.  We were young as hell. The following 1992-93 season, we were invited to take part in the company’s production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. Vivica was Berta and I was Fiorello.

While I was an undergrad, I competed in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Albert M. Greenfield Student Competitions. I did George London Vocal Competition, the Loren Zachary Competition in Los Angeles, and the McAllister Voice Competition of Indianapolis and also the Opera Index Vocal Competition.

I would win several thousand bucks. But I would also get a crowd in New York City to see what I was. I knew that they were hearing me for the first time. Often, when I didn’t win a competition, I would re-enter the same competition again, and would win on the second try. I worked on finding out what they wanted, applied it to my performance and that blew them away.

Wm: During this time you were still pursuing your academic vocal training. What did you do next?

EO: After graduating from Temple, I applied to the Curtis Institute, but I didn’t get in the first year. But during that year after Temple I started studying with Helen Laird, who was the Dean of the School of Music at Temple. She saw something she felt she could foster.

Dean Laird knew that I hadn’t gotten into Curtis. She took me into her office, and said “Listen at this time, you don’t have enough credits to graduate. I want to take you to next level. Your teacher at Temple is leaving. I want to find you a new teacher, but not necessarily here. What I would love to do to find some scholarship money that would permit you to take any course you like.”

She recommended a teacher, Armen Boyajian, who took me right away. Not only did she find the money for the lessons, I didn’t even have to pay for a train ticket to New York City. After that, I applied to the Curtis Institute and they were astounded with the progress.

Wm: I have interviewed other opera stars whom Boyajian teaches. What is your experience with him?

EO: With Armen Boyajian, it was almost two years before we worked on any repertory. We started on a single note and we found the optimum placement tone on every vowel. Then we worked on the consonants, including where two consonants are sounded together, always working to make sure the consonants did not hurt the vowel production.

That takes a long time. There are no short cuts to this. That’s why it doesn’t help to start until you are around age 26.

Wm: When did it become clear that you would have a successful career in opera?

EO: I had been accepted into the Houston Grand Opera Studio for young artists. When did I think my career was going to happen? It was my second year in the HGO studio. During that year I got my agent and started doing auditions. 

I finished the HGO studio in Spring 1997 and that fall I started working. I didn’t know whether my career would have longevity, but I knew I had work for the season.

That’s not the story for every young artist. It’s a little easier for the lower male voices but much more difficult for the sopranos.  There are more sopranos around than bassos and fewer roles for sopranos in opera.

Wm: A basso or bass-baritone can all a lot of Mozart’s young men’s roles in his youth and then progress to the big Verdi and Wagner roles and do character basso roles in late career. 

EO: In a typical bel canto opera there is one lead woman and her maid. A young soprano can undertake these roles, but, unlike the low male voices, there is a deficit of roles for the more mature soprano.

[Below: Capellio (Eric Owens, left) prefers Tebaldo (Saimir Pirgu, center) as the suitor to his daughter; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SF CAPULETI 425)

Wm: When as a teenager I first became acquainted with opera, there were half dozen major opera companies that promoted the artists that they had on their rosters. Nothing equivalent exists in the contemporary scene.

EO: There are no record companies with rosters of opera artists. There are not even classical music recordings made in the United States.

In the 1980s and 1990s we had a lot of American stars, such as Renee Fleming, Richard Leech, Jerry Hadley, Thomas Hampson, Carol Vaness and Ruth Ann Swenson. Hampson, DiDonato and Fleming still sell CDs, but almost everyone else has little opportunity.

Wm: The record business changed when the income from rock music began to decline, impacting such companies as RCA Victor, EMI and Decca that had leading roles in recording complete operas.

EO: The subsidies to opera began its decline once the record companies came to be owned by conglomerates, and their accountants started looking at opera record sales. Then they crunched the numbers they showed that a significant percentage of opera recordings didn’t recoup their expenses. They were losing money year after year.

What the conglomerates did is to pump all of their money into two or three stars, build a “rock star cachet” for the Anna Netrebkos and Rolando Villazons and then start to acquire a piece of the live performances. Some stars had enough public recognition that they could fill sports arenas. But I believe the record companies have a conflict of interest. It will probably change again because of the impact of HD performances in movie houses.

Wm: You performed the role of Porgy in Francesca Zambello’s production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the San Francisco Opera, which is memorialized on a EuroArts DVD. What are your thoughts on Gershwin’s opera and Zambello’s production of it?

EO: It’s a production that I love. There is a lot of heart to it as with everything that Francesca brings to it. The production is fantastic. It’s the only “Porgy” that I’ve done, but I’ve done it three times. The piece is glorious music.

[Below: Porgy (Eric Owens, right) and Bess (Laquita Mitchell, left) have found happiness in each other’s company; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SF PORGY (400) BESS

Gershwin was not just a jazz guy He studied classical music. There is quite a bit of Stravinsky influence. When Robbins is killed and when Porgy kills Crown, the Rite of Spring chord plays in the orchestra. When I first heard it – the chord plus one note – I appreciated how intricate and technical Gershwin’s writing is. It’s quite serious music. It’s fantastic.

Wm: Your role as Stephen Kumalo in Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” was such a resounding success at the 2012 Glimmerglass Festival that Francesca Zambello has scheduled you and the production for the 2015-16 Washington National Opera season at the Kennedy Center. What are personal thoughts about that role and Weill’s treatment of Paton’s novel “Cry the Beloved Country”?

EO: That role took me to a different place as an artist. It’s not an opera at all. The dialogue is a piece of theater with music. There is tons of dialogue. When “Lost in the Stars” was originally written, the Stephen Kumalo character didn’t have all that music to sing until Todd Duncan became part of it. Todd added some songs, which are now a core part of the role.

Wm: Elaborate on “Lost in the Stars” being “theater with music”.

EO: In the scene that moves the drama along, there is powerful dialogue. I remember thinking when I was learning it that I don’t want to sound like an opera singer doing dialogue. I have to be a decent actor. I tore that script apart learning the nuances of the role.

In the past, you could get by with crappy acting in a part like Sarastro in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. I knew it wasn’t that kind of piece. I had a fear of looking like a complete idiot. That was something that was stretching my boundaries – a life changing kind of thinking. I think the idea that “great actors are born” is just bull. I think you can learn it.

Wm: You have been exploring the Verdi baritone repertory at the Glimmerglass Festival as Amonasro in “Aida”, directed by Francesca Zambello and as the title role of “Macbeth”, directed by Anne Bogart. What were these experiences like?

EO: I’ve worked with Cesca Zambello many times, including her “Porgy and Bess” production.

I found that working with Anne Bogart on “Macbeth” was incredibly special. I would like to be on a par with the actors she regularly works with. It was an amazing process.

[Below: Macbeth (Eric Owens, left) is haunted by hallucinations as Lady Macbeth (Melody Moore, right) looks on in terror; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

GLIM MACB OWENS (400) TABLE SCHULTZ

If you approach a Shakespearean opera with a verismo take on it, you need to behave like the music is not happening. When the drama has equal weight in the opera, the story is just as impactful as the music.

Gone are the days of hanging out on stage and just singing, as so many of the great voices of the past did. In these times, Anne Bogart is not coming over to direct people to stand and sing. There needs to be a truth in what you’re doing. It is hard. It’s easier in the moments of recitative moment.

Wm: Of your Vodnik in Sir David McVicar’s production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” in Chicago I wrote: “Vodnik is perhaps the most perceptive thinker among the opera’s characters, and, in many ways, the most endearing. He also has some of most affecting music to sing. Owens played the role superbly, making a strong impression as a Rusalka’s deeply concerned parent, as well as a guardian of nature.” What are your thoughts about that role, and are you planning to sing it again?

EO: I don’t agree with your take on the role. Vodnik is a strange creature. There is a part of Vodnik’s character that I respect a lot, but overall, I found the part frustrating, because he just gave advice. He didn’t try to do anything. I had to find the love that he had for his daughter.

[Below: Vodnik (Eric Owens, left) tries to dissuade his daughter Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez) from the life she is determined to lead; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

LYR CHI RUSALKA (400) OWENS MARTINEZ

David McVicar and I had known each other since 2000, but “Rusalka” was the first time we worked together.

Wm: I have reported on your performances of productions of Handel’s “Hercules” staged by Peter Sellars in Chicago, as well as Handel’s “Ariodante” staged by John Copley in San Francisco. What are your thoughts as to how baroque opera should be acted.

EO: I think ideally opera companies should present operas with verismo acting, whether it is for by Handel or Mozart or a modern composer.

I know that it’s hard to make a baroque opera realistic, but I’ve seen wonderful people do it, where the da capo conventions can make perfect dramatic sense.

I think of was one of the first truly great experiences was first met became a decent actor at age 29 or 30. I was in Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” at the English National Opera in 2000. Alice Coote was Poppea. Sarah Connolly was Octavia,  and the cast also included Susan Gritton, Carolyn Sampson, Michael Chance and Anne-Marie Owens. Harry Christophers conducted.

There I worked with Steven Pimlott, OBE, who was at that time an Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He passed away later on.  

The process was so new to me and so enriching How much I enjoyed it! There was an eight-week rehearsal period. We had seven sitzprobe!

The whole cast sat around the table going from scene to scene talking about this period of Roman history and the characters. I’m surrounded by a table full of Brits with classical training quoting Suetonius and Tacitus. These were the brilliant responses of a wonderful cast of amazing people.

Wm: What other directors have particularly inspired you?

EO: I enjoyed working again with Stephen Lawless in his production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” at the Washington National Opera.

I had a ball work with both David and Christopher Alden. They both know every word of any opera they direct and know the scores backwards and forwards, well enough to conduct.

Wm: Thank you for the time.

EO: I enjoyed the conversation.

 

 

Tags: 2008-2016 William's Interviews

Review: Boogie Nights at Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” – Houston Grand Opera, January 30, 2016

February 1st, 2016

The great British director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, once famously quipped that you could set Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” on the Moon, as long as you located the doors in the right place.

His colleague, Michael Grandage, CBE, chose not the Moon, but Andalusian Spain in the late 1960s (in the countryside near Seville) for his 2012 Glyndebourne Festival co-production with the Houston Grand Opera.

When it became Houston’s turn to show the production off, HGO assembled a talented cast representing North America, Europe and Asia, who sang beautifully and caught the madcap spirit of Grandage’s take on the familiar story.

Boogie Nights in Andalusia

The Grandage production sets the action not too long after the Beatles and other British rock groups launched the psychedelic revolution, whose effects obviously have subverted whatever discipline existed in the Almaviva household.

[Below: the Almavivas are greeted by an entourage of servants, as they arrive home; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (425) 5 CAR

Sixties’ gags are abundant. The Almavivas arrive in a spiffy sports car at the opera’s opening. The Almavivas, their servants and guests don the period’s sometimes elegant, often eccentric costumes. All classes mingle for ’60s style pony and twist dances to celebrate the marital festivities.

[Below: some fun time at the wedding reception; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (425) 219 PHOTO OP

Should the Count carelessly leave a joint around, all the better for Cherubino and his squeeze, Barbarina.

As befits a socially avant-garde household in a period of time in which the women’s movement in Western democracies was accelerating, all the women in Mozart’s opera – the Countess, Susanna, Marcellina and Barbarina – prove strong and resourceful.

In celebration, HGO assembled a remarkable quartet of artists, respectively Ailyn Pérez, Heidi Stober, Catherine Cook and Pureum Jo, for this quartet.

The men, Figaro, the Count, Cherubino, Don Bartolo and Don Basilio – played respectively by Adam Plachetka, Joshua Hopkins, Lauren Snouffer, Peixin Chen and Keith Jameson – whatever their own schemes might be at a given moment, usually find themselves the unwitting object of the intrigues of the quartet of merry wives (or wives to be).

Stober, Hopkins, Snouffer and Chen were all alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio artists, and Jo was one of three current members of  HGO Studio in the cast.

[Below: Susanna (Heidi Stober, front left) and Figaro (Adam Platchekta, front right) do their dancing thing; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (400) 221 STOBER PLACHETKA DANCE STEP SC 3

Ailyn Pérez’ Countess

Although the Countess by tradition gets the fourth position at curtain call (preceding the curtain calls for the Count, Susanna and Figaro), her two big arias Porgi amor and Dove sono when sung by a great artist will often be show-stealing experiences. So it was with the performance of Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez, whose exquisitely sung, introspective Dove sono received the audience’s most enthusiastic mid-performance ovation.

[Below: The Countess (Ailyn Pérez, left), Susanna (Heidi Stober, center) and Figaro (Adam Plachetka, right) discuss their mutual concerns; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE PEREZ STOBER PLACHETKA (425)

Luxuriously costumed, Pérez was mesmerizing performing one of Mozart’s greatest roles, as the disheartened wife of her chronic womanizer husband.

Heidi Stober’s Susanna

The longest role in the opera is that of Figaro’s fiance Susanna. Heidi Stober made a strong impression in the role.

[Below: Susanna (Heidi Stober, right) receives some important information from the gossipy Don Basilio (Keith Jameson, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (400) 52 BASILIO SUSANNA

Susanna is at or near the center of everything happening in the opera. Stober’s secure lyric soprano, especially affecting in her last act aria Deh vieni, non tardar, proved exactly right for this role.

Joshua Hopkins’ Count Almaviva

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who missed the production’s first performance (and apparently also the production photographs) eight days prior because of illness, was in good voice.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins wearing the pants and vest of Count Almaviva’s third act costume in his dressing room at the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival; edited image of a photograph from Joshua Hopkins’ Facebook site.]

GLYNDEBOURNE (400) HOPKINS ALMAVIVA

Like those for the Countess, the production’s costumes for her Almaviva spouse were extravagant, the Count’s third act suit and vest especially memorable.

Adam Plachetka’s Figaro

The staging of Czech bass-baritone Adam Platchetka’s Figaro was rather more subdued than one would expect from the transposition of an 18th century firebrand into the hedonistic late 1960s.

That said, I enjoyed his spirited last act Aprite un po’ quegli occhi in which Figaro, misreading what is happening around him, denounces womankind.

Lauren Snouffer’s Cherubino and Pureum Jo’s Barbarina

Sporting a 1960s British rockstar hairstyle and looking like a Carnaby Street fashion plate, Lauren Snouffer projected an appealing and beautifully sung Cherubino.

[Below: Barbarina (Pureum Jo, left) and Cherubino (Lauren Snouffer, right) boogie at the wedding reception; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (400) 292 BARBARINA CHERUBINO DANCING

The part of Barbarina with its aria L’ho perduta, me meschina – one of Mozart’s most haunting melodies – can be a prize assignment for a young soprano early in her career. Pureum Jo was a standout in both the aria and the performance as a whole, auguring well for a major operatic career.

Catherine Cook’s Marcellina, Peixin Chen’s Doctor Bartolo and Keith Jameson’s Don Basilio

Catherine Cook and Keith Jameson have both established niches as character actors. For Cook, Marcellina has become a signature role. She is unexcelled in the nuances of this character who shifts (along with her companion Doctor Bartolo) from villain to good guy in an instant.

[Below: Doctor Bartolo (Peixin Chen, left) explains his importance to the world to the scheming Marcellina (Catherine Cook, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO NOZZE (425) 19 BARTOLO MARCELINA

Keith Jameson is a newcomer this month to the Houston Grand Opera (alternating the roles of Don Basilio and the Gameskeeper in “Rusalka”). Don Basilio is a role with which he is closely associated. Costumed in plaid and with a bright red wig, he embodied the image of a sleazy used car salesman.

Chinese basso Peixin Chen navigated the tongue-twisting lyrics of arguably Mozart’s greatest buffo aria, La Vendetta, and showed he has the comic timing and vocal prowess to be a dominant presence in this role in the manner that his colleagues Cook and Jameson are as Marcellina and Basilio.

Notes on the Production

Sir Nicholas’ pronouncement that one can set “Marriage of Figaro” on the moon has profound corollaries – that this comic masterpiece has a universality and an indestructibilty that suggests that any setting that does not detract from the opera story and music can be successful.

The Moorish influence on Andalusian architecture guides each of British Designer Christopher Oram’s sets for each of the opera’s four acts. It was Oram who also designed the fanciful costumes.

There is much to admire in Grandage’s staging and in the turntable-mounted Oram’s sets, the soothing sepia tones of the last three acts balancing out the depressing malachite green of the first act in the Figaro-Susanna bedroom.

Choreography is usually not a major concern in a “Marriage of Figaro” production, but British Movement Director Ben Wright was enlisted to invent lively dance sequences for nobility and servants to twist the night away.

The conducting of Harry Bicket was masterful, and on his watch, several of the principals assayed alternate passages in the later stanzas of their major arias rarely heard in modern performance.

Federico De Michelis was the gardener Antonio, Chris Bozeka was Don Curzio and Laurie Lester and Cecilia Duarte were the Bridesmaids.

The revival was staged by British director Ian Rutherford. (When Joshua Hopkins took ill the day of the scheduled first performance, Rutherford unexpectedly made his Houston Grand Opera stage debut mime-acting the part of Count Almaviva while HGO Studio Artist Ben Edquist sang the part.)

Recommendation

I recommend this production and cast, both for the veteran opera-goer and for the person new to opera.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews

Review: Powerful Performances by Martinez, Jagde in “Rusalka” – Houston Grand Opera, January 29, 2016

January 30th, 2016

Houston Grand Opera imported Melly Still’s production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, created for England’s 2009 Glyndebourne Festival. The principal singers in HGO’s strong cast are Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, the star of Still’s Glyndebourne production, as the Rusalka, and New York tenor Brian Jagde, in his HGO debut, as the Prince.

Ana Maria Martinez’ Rusalka

Martinez brought to the title role her dramatic portrayal of the nameless rusalka (a species of water-sprite, whose place in folklore is similar to that of the Little Mermaid and Undine).

Martinez beautifully sang the melody-soaked arias of the first and third acts, while meeting the challenges of the physically demanding performance throughout the evening. Displaying the dark, lyric quality one associates with her voice, she masterfully navigated the psychologically intense second act. There her character is a spellbound mute for much of the act, after which, her desire for a “human” relationship dashed, she abandons hope in a cathartic outburst.

[Below: Ana Maria Martinez as Rusalka; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) 49 MARTINEZ WATER SPRITE

Martinez has been a dominant presence as this opera’s visibility rises in Britain and the United States, having also starred in another important British production [see Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014]. Houston’s audiences experienced an artist whose dramatic insights and vocal prowess define how the role should be sung.

Brian Jagde’s Prince

Brian Jagde was impressive from his first entrance, displaying the lyric beauty and vocal power that suggests a heldentenor in the making. Possessing a brilliant and focused voice, Jagde was a handsome Prince, with the ability to project the emotions of this character’s inner conflicts. The final scene, the Prince’s liebestod, was especially affecting.

[Below: Brian Jagde as the Prince; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (400) 88 PRINCE ARROWS

Jagde’s current repertory is dominated by the great tenor roles of Puccini and Bizet’s “Carmen” [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde], with upcoming assignments in operas by Verdi and other Italian masters.  As a winner of the Birgit Nilsson prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest in Beijing (for artistry in works of Wagner and Richard Strauss), one can imagine, later in his career, Jagde singing virtually all of Wagner’s heroic tenor roles.

Richard Paul Fink’s Vodnik

Richard Paul Fink possesses a sonorous baritone well-suited for the large and melodious role of the Rusalka’s father, the fearsome Vodnik, a water spirit or goblin.

[Below: Richard Paul Fink as Vodnik; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) 35 VODNIK

A member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio Artists in the mid-1980s, who sang Vodnik in Houston in 1991, Fink was a strong presence as a father who is deeply disapproving of his daughter’s course of action.

Jill Grove’s Jezibaba

Jill Grove was the duplicitous Jezibaba. She enlisted the wide range of her mezzo-soprano, which includes abundant strength in its contralto depths, to portray the inherent menace in the character.

Grove, who also appeared with Martinez in the McVicar production of “Rusalka” in Chicago, cited above, made her mark as the only unambiguously malevolent character in the opera.

 [Below: Jill Grove as Jezibaba; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) 72 JEZIBABA SPELL

The witch’s deceits assured that it would be impossible, even at the ruinous costs that Jezibaba imposed, for the Rusalka to gain the happiness as a human she so desired.

Maida Hundeling’s Foreign Princess, Keith Jameson’s Gamekeeper, Mane Galoyan’s Kitchen Girl and Other Artists

German soprano Maida Hundeling had the vocal power and glamorous appearance to be effective as the Foreign Princess, the rival for the Prince’s affections.

[Below: the Foreign Princess (Maida Hundeling, left) seeks the attentions of the Prince (Brian Jagde, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (400) 129 W PRINCE PRINCESS

Other artists with particularly noteworthy performances were American character tenor Keith Jameson and Armenian soprano Mane Galoyan, who made a spectacular duo as the gossipy Gamekeeper and Kitchen Girl.

[Below: the Gamekeeper (Keith Jameson, front center, facing front) discusses the household situation with the Kitchen Girl (Mane Galoyan, front right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) 115 GAMEKEEPER MAID

American soprano D’Ana Lombard, American mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky and American mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin were the three Dryads (wood nymphs).

Harry Bicket led the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra in a riverting performance, immersing the audience in Dvorak’s lushly sonic splendors.

Melly Still’s production

The first major success of British director Melly Still was her 2005 staging National Theater staging of Helen Edmundson’s play Coram Boy at London’s prestigious National Theater. That achievement led to an invitation to make her debut as an opera director for the 75th Glyndebourne Festival.

There she teamed with her Coram Boy colleague, British lighting director Paule Constable and with British set and costume designer Rae Smith. British director Donna Stirrup staged the production’s revival in Houston.

Contemporary directors have found quite different ways to approach this folk-tale based opera. Its eroticism invites pychoanalytic interpretations, but there are other approaches as well. McVicar’s production emphasized the environmental destruction of the natural world by humankind.

Still concentrates not on the natural world, but the supernatural – a world of rusalki, water goblins, dryads and witches.

[Below: The Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, front left center, in white) unsuccessfully implores her sisters to allow jer to return to them; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) W SISTERS

As Still explores the interface between the supernatural and human worlds, she emphasizes the different world-views of immortal beings and humans with brief, but passionate existences. Here the utterances of the skeptical Vodnik have a meaning that might be lost  (or less interesting) in other interpretations.

“Rusalka” is still a relatively new addition to the basic repertory  that had not ever been performed in the United States before 1975 when the San Diego Opera first mounted it.

The theme of erotic love affairs between immortal beings and humans is the fodder for the popular stories of current and recent network and cable television series. Within the fans of such genres there may be potential new audiences for Dvorak’s work, whose  seductive melodies and erotic situations could prove a catalyst for introducing such audiences to the art form of opera.

[Below: The mortal Prince (Brian Jagde, left), deeply remorseful, expresses the wish to kiss the immortal Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, right), even though he knows the kiss will end his life; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

HGO RUSALKA (425) 243 W REMORSEFUL PRINCE

Recommendation

I recommend the opera, this cast, and the production both to the veteran opera-goer and to the person new to opera.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews