A Captivating “La Traviata”

“La Traviata”
Merrill Auditorium
July 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Enchanting” is not a word one reads often in music reviews, but it applies to the Opera Maine production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opened Wednesday night at Merrill Auditorium.

I was prepared to turn up my willing suspension of disbelief to high volume—the plot of “La Traviata” is as full of holes as a political platform—but I was hooked from the first note of the prelude, as played by Stephen Lord’s fine orchestra, and captivated upon the raising of the curtain on a Parisian drawing room of the 1930s.

The set, by Lloyd Evans, with scenery provided by Opera Carolina, is marvelous, with its massive curved stairway in red velvet, and the costumes, by Millie Hiibel, are equally gorgeous. The garden of the second act evokes bucolic sophistication with a gazebo that dominates the scene.

Director Dona D. Vaughn’s choice of the 1930’s era, with its connotations of ”The Great Gatsby,” was inspired. “La Traviata,” written in 1853, failed on its first appearance due to its subject matter and staging in modern dress.

The initial flop was also due to an inappropriate diva in the title role of Violetta. That was not a problem with soprano Maria Natale, who not only has a glorious voice and acting ability, but actually looks the part. I had not remembered how difficult her role is to sing at all. Verdi’s score is as full of flourishes, ornaments and gigantic leaps in pitch as anything by Handel. To sing it with appropriate expression is trebly difficult, but Natale accomplished it believably, even in the prolonged death scene.

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney, as Alfredo, was equally appropriate, wooing Violetta with good looks, devotion and astonishing naivety. What makes him appealing to her, in this version, seems to have been his vulnerability.

In the father-and-son scenes, however, baritone Joo Won Kang, as Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, steals the show, especially in the well-known aria “Di Provenza il mar” in which he recalls happy moments in their house by the sea.

An accomplished chorus, under the direction of Robert Russell, lightens up the stage in Violetta’s lively parties, providing welcome comic interludes in the tragedy, including a fantastic gypsy dance and a lively pas de deux by principals of the Portland Ballet, Kelsey Harrison and Russell Hewey.

The minor roles, for which Verdi severely limits the number of lines sung, were also perfectly portrayed. Bass Hidenori Inoue, as Alfredo’s rival, Baron Duphol, is his exact opposite, projecting power and menace like a Samurai.

The final death scene is sometimes parodied as too long and over-blown, but Verdi’s music carries the day, making it as believable as Raymond Carver’s depiction of the death of Chekhov, in which the presiding doctor orders up a bottle of champagne. Such telling details, in which Vaughn excels, make it work.

Looking for something to quibble with, I inquired if it was possible for Alfredo and Duphol to have a duel in 1930. The last recorded duel in France occurred in 1967. (Oh well, the practice would make us all more polite.)

The performance earned a long and well-deserved standing ovation, finally bringing on stage almost everyone concerned, with flowers for Natale and Vaughn.

There are sill a few tickets left for Friday’s performance. I would urge anyone who loves opera to snap them up.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Opera Maine Presents “La Traviata” Tonight and Friday

Preview of “La Traviata”
July 26. 2017
By Christopher Hyde

If you want to hear some of Verdi’s most lushly Romantic music, featured on most collections of greatest opera hits, there are still a few tickets left for tonight’s and Friday’s performances of “La Traviata” by Opera Maine (formerly PORTopera).

The production, at Merrill Auditorium, is directed by Dona D. Vaughn, with orchestra conducted by Stephen Lord. It features nationally known artists Maria Natale as Violetta and Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo. Both are making their debut with Opera Maine, singing these leading roles for the first time.

The first performance of “La Traviata,” staged in modern dress (for 1853), was a disaster, because of the subject (which could be translated at “The Working Girl” by Joe Green), the staging and the disparity between the singers and their roles. A second try, set around 1700, was an instant success and “La Traviata” has remained one of the most popular operas of all time.

The Opera Maine production takes place in the 1930s, when Parisian drawing rooms were still elegant, and penicillin had not been invented. Where would tragic opera be without consumption?

The chorus is composed of Maine singers, under the direction of Robert Russell, and Lord considers it one of the best he has worked with.

Dona Vaughn is known for her fresh approach to operatic classics, and “La Traviata,” I’m sure, will be no exception. I’m looking forward to tonight.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Sebago-Long Lake Concerts Worth the Drive

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
July 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

From Pownal to Harrison is an hour’s drive over twisty roads and 17 (I counted) turns. The Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deertrees Theater, every Tuesday evening from now until August 8, is always worth the trip.

The theater, with its resonating wooden shell, is like being inside a giant cello. The musicians are first-rate and the programming imaginative. One can always hear something new and unexpected, such as the Dvorák Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74 (1887), which the composer, then at the height of his powers, dashed off for a friend.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it, but the work is more fun to play than to listen to in a concert setting. It also suffers from lack of a bass line, although the viola struggles valiantly to make up the deficiency.

That said, Dvorák seldom wrote badly and the work is full of interesting touches, characteristic melodies and some successful experiments, such as the tremolo variation in the final movement.

The Brahms Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, was also written for a friend, the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing brought the aging composer out of retirement. It is more thoroughly composed than the Dvorák, but was obviously written to show off the beauties of a wind instrument assuming its modern form under the fingers of a virtuoso.

Brahms is even reticent with the piano part, which must have cost him a great deal of angst. It also contains one of Brahms’ most charming waltzes and harks back to the earlier Hungarian dances in the final movement. My favorite sections were the compare-and-contrast interludes with the cello, and wherever clarinetist Carmelo Galante produced that lovely burbling signature sound.

Does any one recall “Music Minus One?” I had the recording of Schumann’s great Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, to attempt playing the piano part with a famous quartet. It didn’t work. Not only was the score difficult to play in strict tempo, but matching the pitch of the recording to the piano tuning was virtually impossible. Still, I got to know the quintet well enough to appreciate a really exciting performance by Mihae Lee, whose rapid chord scales in the Scherzo almost (but not quite) turned the piece into a piano concerto for Clara.

The entire work went by too fast, from the glorious opening theme to the final fugue, which evolves naturally from what has gone before instead of being an obligatory homage to Bach, as with other Romanic efforts.

It earned a typical Deertrees standing ovation from the large audience, with deafening foot-stamping to take advantage of the theater’s resonance.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bowdoin Festival Friday Concert Enthralls a Sold-Out Audience

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Crooker Theater
July 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Every time a pundit bemoans the decline or death of classical music, all one need do is think of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which is now attracting larger audiences than at any time in its history, including many sold out concerts. Maybe classical music is getting too popular. Florence at the height of the Renaissance had a population of about 35,000.

Friday night’s SRO concert at Crooker Theater is just one example. Admittedly, it offered rock-star level violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but the enthusiasm for every work on the program was infectious. When was the last time a contemporary composer, (Jennifer Higdon), received a standing ovation?

The program began with an entertainment by Mozart, his Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, brilliantly executed by James Austin Smith, oboe, Kurt Sassmanhaus, violin, SoHui Yun, viola,, and Ahrin Kim, cello. I use the word “entertainment” advisedly, because the quartet, written for an oboe virtuoso, is a display piece, without much depth. Mozart treats the oboe as a sort of super violin, neglecting the instrument’s primary attraction—its reedy tonal quality.

“Light Refracted,” by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, is a more introspective work in two movements, “Inward” and “Outward,” that could be a meditation on Shelly’s line:: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.”

It begins with a pianissimo clarinet solo, evocative of a light ray from a high window, illuminating dust motes in its path. It goes on, in a relatively passive vein, exploring the ways light affects emotion.
The second movement, ferocious and rhythmical, seems more like the sparkle of a diamond, or a dancehall mirror ball. The audience loved it, and gave the musicians and the composer several curtain calls.

The piece de resistance, of course, was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Meyers and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

The Festival Orchestra, of students and faculty, just continues to get better. In this performance it was indistinguishable from a professional ensemble that has played together for years. There was a reversal of the usual balance problems, with the conductor having to turn down the volume to avoid drowning out the soloist.
Meyers was technically and emotionally superb, like a great actress who forces an audience to listen to every word by subtle modulations of a quiet voice. It enthralled the audience at Crooker, which leaped to its feet after the final note. I was brought up on a more heroic approach, but that is just a matter of personal taste.

There was no encore, in spite of repeated curtain calls. Hooray, hooray!

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

DaPonte at Top Form in “More for Four”

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
July 11, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Most classical music programs take the form of a sandwich. One “difficult” or contemporary work, squeezed between two audience favorites. The DaPonte String Quartet’s concert Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, was more of the open-face variety, beginning with a devastating “Four for Tango,” by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla—black as midnight in Buenos Aires and twice as dangerous.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dissonance can be carried on the broad shoulders of the tango, without missing a beat. Everything seems normal, including shrieks on the violins that sound like gauchos sharpening their knives. Every good performance of Piazzolla—and this was one of the best—contains a black hole of violence and despair. “Four for Tango” ends in a knife fight. Absolutely gorgeous.

If one needed further evidence that the DaPonte was in its best form, it was given by the next rendition, of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio from the String Quartet No. 1. The long, drawn-out increase in intensity built to an almost unbearable level before an abrupt transition to the tranquility of the opening—all with the same richness of texture that one has come to expect in the better-known orchestral version.

It was followed by a delightful series of musical one-liners, “Microcosms,” by John Heiss, narrated by violinist Lydia Forbes. The short jokes range from major and minor seconds “rubbing together” in “Clustered,” to a crazy waltz in “Stuck” to aleatoric shenanigans in “Free.” How can one dislike a composer who writes a fantasy on Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”? (In the concluding “Homeward Bound”).The audience thoroughly enjoyed it.

Speaking of crazy waltzes, the DaPonte presented another example in a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, as quirky in its own way as the Heiss piece.
It came in the second movement, Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando in B-llat major, which really is a joke, unlike many scherzi, which take themselves seriously. In the midst of persistent and strangely rhythmical motif in repeated notes comes a strange little tune that is the height of vulgarity and very hard to get out of one’s head.

The scherzo is followed by a seriously melodic adagio, with some appealing cello and violin solos, leading suddenly to series of variations on a Russian theme (sounds like our MSM) insisted upon by the sponsor of Opus 59, the Russian ambassador Count Rasumowsky.

The Count certainly got his money’s worth. Every time one expects the ending chords there comes another take on the “Russian” theme, which I believe was actually invented by Beethoven. Just when the audience thinks it can’ t stand another false cadence, the work comes to an abrupt end—in this case leading to a standing ovation.

The program will be repeated on July 13 at 7:00 p.m. in the Burnt Cove Church community center in Stonington and on July 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal.  He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.