Opera Warhorses

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

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In Quest of Live Performances of Popular Operas – May-November, 2016

May 1st, 2016

The most popular operas have been nicknamed the opera “warhorses”. They include the ABCD operas of “Aida”, “Boheme”, “Carmen” and “Don Giovanni”.  (There is currently no “E” opera in this list and little prospect that, say, Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” or Verdi’s “Ernani” will challenge the other four.

As it turns out, I am scheduled to review performances of each of these ABCD operas over the next several months.


Carmen (Bizet), San Francisco Opera, May 27, 28, 29(m), 31, June 1, 17, 23, 26(m), 30, July 2 and 3(m), 2016

The San Francisco Opera offers two casts for the American premiere of controversial Spanish director Calixto Bielto’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen”.  The first cast has mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts in the title role, with tenor Brian Jagde as Don Jose, soprano Ellie Dehn as Micaëla and Zachary Nelson as Escamillo.

[Below: a scene from the final act of Calixto Bielto’s production of “Carmen”; edited image, based on a production photograph.]



The second cast is led by Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen, Maxim Aksenov as Don Jose, Erika Grimaldi as Micaëla and Michael Sumuel as Escamillo. Joan Anton Rechi is revival director, Alfons Flores is set designer. Carlo Montanaro conducts all but one performance (July 3, conducted by Jordi Benacer).

For more on Jagde’s Don Jose, see [Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde] as well as my review of Costa-Jackson’s Carmen at [Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011].

[For my review of the United Kingdom premiere of Bielto production, see: Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bieito’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012.]


Don Giovanni (Mozart), Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 8, 13, 22, August 1, 6, 10, 15, 20 and 26, 2016

Ron Daniels makes his Santa Fe Opera debut as director of a new production of Mozart’s masterpiece. Santa Fe Opera veterans Daniel Okulitch, Leah Crocetto and Isabel Leonard are cast respectively as Giovanni, Anna and Elvira.

[Below: Daniel Okulitch in the title role of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of “Don Giovanni”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.]


The other principals are all Santa Fe Opera debuts – Edgaras Montvidas as Don Ottavio, Rhian Lois as Zerlina (American debut) and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello. The conductor is John Nelson.


La Boheme (Puccini), Glimmerglass Festival, July 8, 17(m), 24(m), 26(m), 28, August 1(m), 6, 9(m), 11, 13(m), 19, 22(m) and 27, 2016

E. Loren Meeker creates a new production of “La Boheme”, shifting the story about a half a century later into Paris’ Belle Epoque period.

[Below: Raquel Gonzalez (right) is Mimi, with as Rodolfo, in a Washington National Opera performance of “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]


Michael Brandenburg is Rodolfo, Raquel Gonzalez is Mimi, Hunter Enoch is Marcello, Brian Vu is Schaunard and Rhys Lloyd Talbot is Colline,  Vanessa Becerra is Musetta and Dale Travis sings both the Benoit and Alcindoro parts.


Aida (Verdi), San Francisco Opera, November 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20(m), 23, 27(m), 30, December 3 and 6, 2016.

Director Francesca Zambello, who explored Verdi’s “Aida” in her 2012 production for the Glimmerglass Festival [see my review at  Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012] creates a new production for the San Francisco Opera.

[Below: Leah Crocetto is to be Aida; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, from leahcrocetto.com.]


Leah Crocetto is cast as Aida, Brian Jagde as Radames, Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris, George Gagnidze is Amonasro and Raymond Aceto is Ramfis. Graffiti artist RETNA’s will have artistic input, while Michael Yeargan will design the sets. Nicola Luisotti will be the principal conductor.


This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed from April 2016 through December 2016:

Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the San Francisco Opera. [See In Quest of Puccini’s “Tosca” and “Butterfly” in the American Southwest – October 2015 to December 2016.]

Barber’s “Vanessa” at the Santa Fe Opera and Ward’s “The Crucible” at the Glimmerglass Festival. [See In Quest of American Operas – October 2015 through August 2016.]

Janacek’s “Jenufa” and “The Makropoulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera and Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” at the Santa Fe Opera. [See In Quest of Operatic Masterpieces from the German and Czech Repertories – April- November, 2016.]

Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at the Glimmerglass Festival, Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” at the San Francisco Opera and Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Repertory-Expanding Operas – April-December, 2016.]

Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Opera National de Paris, Haydn’s “Orlando Paladino” at the Zurich Oper at Theater Winterthur, Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” at the Zurich Oper and Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich [See In Quest of European Opera Performances (Part One) April-May 2016.]

Bizet’s “Carmen” at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Boito’s “Mefistofele” at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany; Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot” at L’Opera National de Rhin, Strasbourg; and Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”/Stravinsky’s “Persephone” at Opera de Lyon. [See In Quest of European Opera Performances (Part Two) Mid-May 2016.]

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016

April 26th, 2016

The Fort Worth Opera chose to celebrate the opening of its 70th season by commissioning a new opera, with music composed by David T. Little to a libretto by his frequent collaborator Royce Vavrek.

The opera’s commission was intended to commemorate President John F. Kennedy’s early morning hotel stay and campaign breakfast in Fort Worth in the hours before his assassination in the infamous motorcade in nearby Dallas.

[Below: John F. Kennedy (Matthew Worth, right) dreams about that time when he and the young Jacqueline Bouvier (Daniela Mack, left) discovered a mutual attraction on a Hyannis beach; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph for the Fort Worth Opera.]


An excellent cast of North American singers was assembled for the world premiere performances, led by baritone Matthew Worth and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. The opera was conducted by Steven Osgood.

Reality and Surreality

In the Little-Vavrek operatic scheme, the cast of 14 principals are divided into four categories: Mortals, Fates, Apparitions and Texas politicians. Only Worth’s JFK and Mack’s Jackie Kennedy are considered mortal (except for a Reporter, played by Brian Wallin.)

The immortal Fates are played by Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar, who each appear in three different forms at various times within the opera.

All the other cast members are apparitions – morphine-induced hallucinations – that are conjured up by the drug injections that Jackie Kennedy administers to the president to deal with his severe back pain.

The hallucinations include two historical personages who manifest bizarre behaviors, Daniel Okulitch’s very funny Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Casey Finnigan’s over-the-top Nikita Khruschchev (the latter who resides on the moon with the Soviet Red Army).

[Below: President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, center right in t-shirt and back brace visits the apparition of USSR premiere Nikita Khrushchev (Casey Finnigan, center, below hammer and sickle) on the moon; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]


Cree Carrico performs the role of Rosemary Kennedy, the president’s sister who in real life suffered from a mental illness that led to her undergoing a lobotomy. Her apparitions appear in both her mentally ill and lobotomized states.

Another apparition is Jackie Onassis (sung by Katharine Goeldner), representing Jackie Kennedy’s later life. The two ages of Jackie (sung by Mack and Goeldner) take part in a long and affecting trio with the female Fate (sung by Trevigne) in her hotel maid manifestation.

The Texas politicians – Billie Sol Estes (Jared Welch), Ralph Yarborough (Christopher Leach), John Connally (Brett Bode), Raymond J. Buck (Clay Thompson) and Jim Wright (John Salvesen) – accompany the apparition of Vice President Johnson as he invites the Texas Democratic party leaders into President Kennedy’s bathroom where the President is soaking in the tub.

[Below: As President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, far left) soaks in his bathtub, the apparition of Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Daniel Okulitch, in white suit, center) appears, accompanied by Texas politicians; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]


Thaddeus Strassberger’s Scenic Design and Staging

The imaginative scenic design and stage direction was by Thaddeus Strassberger. The centerpiece of his sets is a suite of Hotel Texas rooms that rotate between bedroom, bathroom and a sitting area elsewhere in the suite.

These sets provide the opportunity for the mortal presidential couple to express their thoughts – in the case of Jackie, the inherent sadness from the depression that accompanied the loss of an infant son, in the case of John the wild range of images that morphine induces.

Over the years, I have found Thaddeus Strassberger’s productions to be among my personal favorite opera productions. The greater the opportunity that Strassberger has to unleash his imagination, the more absorbing are the results.

The vivid scene of the John’s and Rosemary’s visit to Nikita Khruschchev on the moon recalls previous Strassberger manipulations of familiar political images from the height of the Soviet Empire [see Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]

[Below: President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, lying on bed) sleeps while Jacqueline Kennedy (Daniela Mack, on the floor) rests near him as the fates Henry Rathbone (Sean Panikkar, standing left) in the guise of a Secret Service Agent and Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne, standing right) in the guise of a Texas Hotel maid, offer their comments; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]


Strassberger brilliantly crowded the movers and shakers of the Texas Democratic party into the President’s bathroom where the President is bathing. Even if this event is occurring only in the President’s drugged mind, it is a stroke of theatrical genius!

Thoughts on the New Opera

The sponsorship of a larger work by the team of composer and librettist who successfully launched the chamber opera “Dog Days” was a notable investment by the Fort Worth Opera. It focuses attention on the vibrant community of Fort Worth, where John Kennedy spent part of the last day of his life.

I commend the performances of all of the cast members and musical staff and the inventiveness of Thaddeus Strassberger’s direction and scenic design. The opera unquestionably has advanced the careers of Matthew Worth, Daniela Mack and others with key roles in the new opera.

Little’s pulsating harmonies, jazzy percussion, and expanses of melody will remind some of such composers as Glass and Adams. One has no problem imagining important future operatic works from this composer.

[Below: the President, Vice President and their wives appear for a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast prior to the president’s motorcade in Dallas; edited image, based on a Morty Sohl photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]

Time will tell what dividends the Fort Worth Opera’s investment will pay. I am a strong proponent of contemporary American opera, and applaud adventuresome fare, but am also interested in seeing and hearing works that have a chance to enter the regular performance repertory. “JFK” meets the adventuresome criterion, even if it is not yet obvious that “JFK” is on track for operatic immortality.

If there is a problem, I suspect it’s not the music. I believe the opera’s faults lie in the libretto. Unlike several American operas of recent years that are based on successful films, or plays, or ideas that have a dramatic core, “JFK” is a series of episodes rather than a historical narrative or even a particularly absorbing story.

The opera will travel next to L’Opéra de Montréal, where it is possible to imagine some extensive reworking (although a couple of scenes that might seem the most outrageous I regard as the most successful.)


It’s possible to imagine a range of reactions to the opera and its libretto. However, I doubt its long-term viability in its present form.


Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews

Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Convincing Case for “Carousel” – April 22, 2016

April 24th, 2016

The Houston Grand Opera mounted Broadway director Rob Ashford’s production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s dark classic “Carousel” with an appealing cast of opera singers, led by Australian baritone Duncan Rock and American soprano Angela Carroll.

[Below: Julie Jordan (Angela Carroll, left) stands by her man, Billy Bigelow (Duncan Rock, right) on a Maine coastal sea wall; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The Ashford production had been performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago with a cast comprised mostly of musical theater stars. The Houston Grand Opera chose to cast it with artists whose careers are centered in opera.

Duncan Rock’s Billy Bigelow

Australian baritone Duncan Rock was a personable Billy Bigelow. He was impressive both for his singing and his acting in his romantic duet If I Loved You with Andrea Carroll’s Julie Jordan. He was stunningly effective in Billy’s Soliloquy, his long scene contemplating his imminent fatherhood.

[Below: Baritone Duncan Rock as Billy Bigelow; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Andrea Carroll’s Julie Jordan

Andrea Carroll created a sympathetic portrait of the good-hearted but steel-willed Julie Jordan. Irresistably attracted to Bigelow, Carroll’s Julie accepts the social disapproval (including losing her mill job) that comes to those who do not conform to her small community’s expectations.

Carroll’s duets with Lauren Snouffer’s Carrie and Duncan Rock’s Billy Bigelow signalled that the audience was in for an evening of musical pleasure.

[Below: Andrea Carroll as Julie Jordan; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


I had reported on Carroll’s Julie earlier [Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014] and note the confidence that Carroll brings to this role in the Ashford production.

Stephanie Blythe’s Nettie Fowler

Traditionally, even when “Carousel” is presented with a musical theater cast, the role of Nettie Fowler is sung by an operatically trained voice.

Mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe, who had recently triumphed as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015], took on another significant Broadway musical role for her Houston Grand Opera debut.

[Below: Stephanie Blythe (center) as Nettie Fowler surrounded by village folk; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Houston audiences were treated to a bravura performance by Blythe, whose affinity for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works shone first in the blockbuster June is Bustin’ Out All Over, and later in one of the greatest numbers in the American song-book, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Lauren Snouffer’s Carrie Pipperidge and Alexander Lewis’ Enoch Snow

If Billy Bigelow’s and Julie Jordan’s personal choices are considered improper by the society in which they reside, the one couple who abide by the social norms are the stiff-necked, often insufferable Enoch Snow and his wife and Julie Jordan’s friend, Carrie Pipperidge.

Lauren Snouffer and Alexander Lewis sang convincingly, their duet When I Marry Mr Snow particularly noteworthy.

[Below: Carrie Pipperidge (Lauren Snouffer, left) and Enoch Snow (Alexander Lewis, right) agree to be married; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Ben Edquist’s Jigger Craigin

Ben Edquist, like Carroll, a veteran of the Glimmerglass Festival “Carousel’ production, reprised the role of Jigger. Edquist’s Jigger was a strong presence in the Whalin’ We Will Go song and dance number.

His Jigger also had an amusing scene (cut in some productions) in which he puts the make on a not-entirely reluctant Carrie Pipperidge.

[Below: Ben Edquist as Jigger Craigin; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


If Jigger is written to be the evil influence who leads Billy astray, casting Edquist, whose charm and charisma is innate, seems to suggest that the robbery caper with its fatal consequences was more a situation of men behaving badly than an act of criminal violence.

 Rob Ashcroft’s Stage Direction and Choreography and Paolo Ventura’s Set Designs 

Rob Ashcroft has moved the time period from the late 19th century to the Great Depression of the 1930s, underscoring Billy Bigelow’s dire economic situation.

Under Ashcroft’s direction, the action moved smoothly with brilliantly conceived scene changes. The 14-person dance troupe performed extensive, athletic dances with impressive skill and precision.

The attractive sets, suggesting the New England coastline, were created by Italian children’s book illustrator Paolo Ventura.

[Below: the village’s men and women engage in a community dance; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Richard Bado conducted. Catherine Zuber created the costumes, Neil Austin was original Lighting Designer, Christopher Maravich the Lighting Realizer, Andrew Harper the Sound Designer.

British Dancer/Actor Helen Anker played the Bigelow’s cougarish former employer, Mrs Mullin. James Belcher was both the Starkeeper and Dr Seldon, Paul Hope was David Bascombe, Abigail Simon was Louise and Marty Lawson the Carnival Boy.

“Carousel” and 21st Century Sensibilities

Three quarters of a century ago Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were in the process of adapting “Carousel” from Ferenc Molnar’s much darker play “Liliom”. Their concern was to create a more hopeful ending than Molnar’s, without alienating the difficult Molnar, who retained the right of final approval of the musical’s libretto. (In Molnar’s “Liliom”, the character on which Bigelow is based is consigned to burn in hell – like Don Giovanni.)

[Below: Billy Bigelow (Duncan Rock, standing right) looks on with disapproval of the attraction of his daughter Louise (Abigail Simon, front left) to the Carnival Boy (Marty Lawson, front center); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Unquestionably, Billy is reckless and something of a scoundrel, but arguably is, in his self-absorbed way, good-hearted and loyal to Julie (and his posthumous daughter Louise).

The themes of redemption and atonement evident in the scenes between Billy and the starkeeper and Billy’s scenes with daughter Louise and widow Julie satisfied Molnar, so that “Carousel” reached the Broadway stage. Yet, decades later “Carousel’s” reputation has been clouded by advocates of zero-tolerance for spousal violence.

In fact, there is no scene in “Carousel” where Billy strikes Julie and only a couple of lines that reference a single incident in the past. But those (not totally unambiguous) lines, spoken by Julie, seem to many to be the words of a woman who defends a dangerous man from whom she should seek escape.

Perhaps a revision to a couple of lines would satisfy its critics (although it is probable that no modifications of Hammerstein’s libretto can take place while “Carousel” is in copyright). That would not prevent opera-goers from considering the offending lines as metaphorical statements rather than defenses of spousal mayhem.

[Below: Paolo Ventura’s sets for the high school graduation; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


There is also the argument that none of the Broadway musicals, whether their music is composed by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim or others – particularly those with extensive spoken dialogue (in this production, miked) – belong in the opera house.

However, as my reviews of Broadway musical productions at Houston, San Francisco and the Glimmerglass Festivals have suggested, many American opera companies, such as Houston Grand Opera, can bring together the resources for mounting these musicals as they should be performed. The results can be greater appreciation by opera audiences of the great classics of American musical theater, while expanding the audiences for live operatic performance.


I recommend the production and cast without reservation, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera company performances.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews