All posts by Chris1937

A graduate of Lafayette College (BS in Physics) and University of Rochester (English), he studied piano in the preparatory division of the Eastman School while working at Eastman Kodak Company. After years as a Mad Man, he moved to Maine and was the classical music critic of the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram for 20 years. Other interests include horses, gardening, painting and silver smithing.

Russian Organ Music in a French-Canadian Basilica

Organist Gail Archer
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Kotzschmar at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is not the only “mighty” organ in Maine. The 1938 Casavant organ in Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sounded equally magnificent in a recital Sunday evening by Gail Archer.

Archer, director of the music program at Barnard College, is a well-known recording artist and the first American woman to play the complete organ compositions of Olivier Messiaen. On Sunday she presented relatively unknown works by Russian composers, discovered there during a recent concert tour.

Their “modern” organ music is as varied in form and content as that of their better-known European contemporaries, with what seems to be a predilection for deep pedal point. What is this Russian love for the bass (which I share)?

The program began with an intellectually challenging and symphonic Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Op. 98) of Alexander Glasunow (1865-1936) which harked back to baroque models.
It was followed by two preludes of Cesar Cui (1836-1918) which sounded more, in their melodic character, like Mendelssohn “Songs without Words.”

A Prelude Pastoral (Op. 54) of Sergej Ljapunow (1859-1924) contained the requisite babbling brooks, abrupt changes of voice and some beautiful filagree work over a steady pedal point.

My favorite of the evening was a violent, polytonal and sometimes humorous Toccata by Sergei Slonimsky (b. 1932), brother of the noted writer on music, Nicolas Slonimsky. It requires the organist to play a different key in each hand. I don’t know which one the pedal favors, or if it even takes sides.

Another Prelude and Fugue, by Alexander Shaversaschvili (1919-2003) concluded with a brassy fugue that would wake the dead. They (the dead) were then given their hour in a tremendous virtuoso transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” by Zsigmond Szathmary.

In some ways, the organ transcription seems more in line with the composer’s intention than the orchestral version. The atmosphere is certainly menacing enough. The church bells announcing the dawn, simulated by chimes in the orchestra, became resonant, more bell-like chords on the organ.

The Casavant organ, like the Kotzschmar last year, is being renovated, with the work about 35 percent complete. No deficiencies were apparent during the concert, with Archer completely in control of the keyboard and registers, without electronic assistance. Her concert was the last in a summer series helping to raise funds for the restoration.

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

Preu Conducts Gershwin

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 30, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Eckart Preu will be a tough act to follow. One of the finalists in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s search for a new music director, he conducted an unbelievably fine all-Gershwin concert Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, with about 3 hours of rehearsal time. The final “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Terrence Wilson, was interrupted by deliberate applause in the middle of the performance, an almost unheard of occurrence.

Given the genius of Gershwin, perhaps the first impression is unfair, but Preu got things out of the orchestra, especially in “An American in Paris,” that I had never heard before, while remaining true to the spirit of the music. He admitted to a special affinity for Gershwin, who was one of the few American composers allowed to be performed in East Germany, where the future conductor grew up. He even did a passable remembrance of a few bars of “Summertime” in German.

To get back to “Rhapsody,” Preu and Wilson played off each other like jazz musicians, resulting in a version as close as possible to the improvisation that characterized Gershwin’s first performance of the work. Authentic it certainly was, but also the most exciting that I have ever heard. Wilson’s immensely long fermatas, as if he were the composer trying to think of what to do next, were heart-stopping.

The balance between piano and orchestra—a much more powerful band than Paul Whiteman’s original—was perfect, with the piano showing through in measures generally lost. Preu and Wilson had worked before on the Gershwin Concerto in F, and I would dearly love to hear that version.

Arrangements of Gershwin melodies from Broadway musicals and the great opera “Porgy and Bess,” were equally well played, but the show stopper was “An American in Paris,” which Preu divided into three movements that made sense: morning in Paris, Paris nights and hangover.

I had never cared for the work before, thinking it a piece of movie music, but Preu brought out beauties of form and detail that made me reconsider. The music became a unified entity rather than a pastiche, with use of recurring motifs that would have made Beethoven happy.

Just one example of many serendipitous details—the plaintive violin solo in the hangover movement, by assistant concertmaster Amy Sims.

Among the shorter pieces that stand out was the humorous clarinet solo, “Walking the Dog,” with principal Thomas Parchman, and a soulful big-band rendition of Gershwin’s last song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” with soprano Jacqueline Bolier.

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

A Grand Display of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season at Merrill Auditorium began with an orchestral version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tribute, as music director Robert Moody observed, to all of those afflicted by climate disasters in the U.S. and its Caribbean territories.

The arrangement was followed appropriately by a rhythmic and well-executed “Danzón No. 2 (1994) by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. I had heard this work before, played by an orchestra stemming from the Venezuelan program “El sistema,” and the Northern version seemed just as authentic and exciting. Enjoyable fluff, with enough contrasts in texture to make it interesting.
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It is impossible to write a concerto for organ and orchestra, but German composer Hans-Andre Stamm gave it a try in 1998, basing the three movements on portions of the 23rd Psalm.
“Impossible” because when the organ is loud enough to hear, it drowns out the orchestra, and vice versa. The sounds of the instrument and and those of individual sections of the band are too similar to provide much contrast, and in a battle for dominance the Kotzschmar will always win.

Both the orchestra and organist James Jones gave it the best possible performance, with some of the tranquil passages —“He leadeth me beside still waters”—miraculously well balanced.
The style of the work, a tonal combination of neo-Romantic and church music, did not help to overcome the sonic difficulties, and it was hard to understand how the concluding middle Eastern dance music fitted into the scheme of the psalm.

The organ does have its uses in a symphony orchestra, as proved by the tremendous conclusion of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition:’ “The Great Gate of Kiev.” When I play it on the piano I always wish for a larger Steinway, or maybe a Bosendorfer, but Moody had an ace in the hole with the Kotzschmar. Just when you think the ultimate in sonority has been reached, in comes an organ pipe and moves the earth.

At the time of writing, I have been unable to discover whether the Ravel transcription includes the organ or whether it was borrowed from Stokowski’s later, more “Slavic” version. Whatever the case, it belongs there.

The other “pictures” were equally well rendered, conjuring up images like no other music, from the groaning of an ox cart to the surreal “Hut on Hen’s Legs” and its brilliant percussion. In “With the Dead in the Tongue of the Dead,” the skulls begin to glow..

At the conclusion, the standing ovation was so long that Moody left the stage and allowed the orchestra members to receive it all by themselves.

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

Franco Center Piano Series Opens with Innovations

David Fung, Pianist
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
Sept. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

One of the most unusual concerts in many a season opened the 12th annual piano series of the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston Friday night. Its innovations were matched by the quality of the performances by pianist David Fung and Daniel Moody, countertenor.

The first half of the program was devoted to piano works with unusual (or zero) rhythmic patterns, beginning with the Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G Major, one of the complete Mozart sonata cycle that Fung is compiling for the Steinway “Spiro” high-resolution player piano.

It was followed by “Impressões Seresteiras,” W.374, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compilation of “street songs” in 3/4 time, which manages to be avant-garde and nostalgic at the same time.

The “Île de feu, 1” from “Four Studies in Rhythm” by Olivier Messiaen, has no bar lines at all, its rhythm being dictated by the feel of note patterns. Under Fung’s hands,it was a tour de force of technique, complete with one of the composer’s beloved bird calls (I think it was a blackbird).

Fung, who holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, and has taught there, prefaced each work with revelatory remarks. In describing his arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse,” he noted that the work has been compared to Poe’s tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and occasioned a challenge to Ravel by choreographer Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work. The duel, apparently, was never fought.

Whatever the work’s history, Fung’s arrangement captures its brooding nature perfectly, in a manner even more virtuosic than the popular two-piano transcription.

After intermission, Fung accompanied countertenor David Moody in works by Dowling, Handel, and contemporary William Bolcom, all which were thoroughly delightful. Countertenors combine the power of the male voice with the vocal range of a mezzo-soprano. They were most popular in heroic roles at the time of Purcell, but they seem to be making a welcome comeback nowadays. Moody is one of the best. He also showed a sense of humor in the very short Bolcom pieces, one of which consists of two lines: “I’ll never forgive you. For my behavior.”

Fung concluded the program with a brilliant interpretation of Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, D. 760. After this grueling effort —Schubert himself and a hard time with it—Fung managed a spritely encore of a Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor.

If I had any quarrel at all with the pianist’s approach, which was technically flawless, it would be with a young man’s typical predilection for speed, and abhorrence of seeming to “drag.” Some passages need a little more time to breathe, even at the expense of metronomic time.

I have written his before, but it bears repeating: the Franco Center’s piano series is the best kept secret, and the foremost value ($10.00 for seniors) of any concert series in Maine. The talent is always of the highest order, the venue is comfortable, with fine acoustics, the ladies serve crepes at intermission, and one can chat with the performers over champagne after the concert. The music starts at 7:00 to accommodate younger students.

The next artist to appear in the series will be French pianist Hélène Papadopoulos, on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

Ragtime at Studzinski Hall

Adam Swanson, Ragtime Piano
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Sept. 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Adam Swanson’s piano recital, Monday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Hall, tracing the roots of American popular music from ragtime to Moss Hart, was like a seven-course dinner consisting of varied colors of cotton candy. Always entertaining but eventually monotonous and unsatisfying.

Swanson, an award-winning interpreter of early 20th century American music, is 25, but already has a wide following, and the audience for a Monday night concert was large and enthusiastic. The composers, especially ragtime giants such as Scott Joplin, could have been better served.

Swanson began the program with “The Entertainer,” made famous by “The Sting, and as expected, was more faithful to the movie than to the original.

It was followed by James Scotts “Frog Legs.” I play “Frog Legs,” just for fun, and Swanson’s arrangement was so gussied up as to be virtually unrecognizable, and way, way too fast.

If one examines a collection of Rags, the indications “slow,” “not fast,” “not too fast,” “tempo di rag,” and “don’t fake,” pop up regularly, barroom pianists having discovered that it is a lot easier, and more tip-producing, to play fast than slow.

A good rag, with its strong syncopated rhythm, characteristic modulations, and clever turns, is a delicate flower, and like the lilies of the field, needs no embellishment.

Joseph Lamb’s ”Bohemia Rag,” which followed, is specifically marked “Not Fast.” I didn’t bring my metronome, but it was well over quarter-note equals 100, as indicated.

The rags were followed by examples of their successors in stride piano, blues, boogie-woogie, 20’s movies and Broadway, concluding with a nice Moss Hart medley.

One of the surprising aspects of the concert was the number of obscure tunes stored in one’s memory bank, never to be recovered until hearing them again many years later. All of the melodies, however, were accompanied by a strong, rhythmical left hand, with melodies and ornaments in the right. While exciting at first, the combination eventually becomes predictable. It has the added disadvantage of blurring the effect of syncopation and leaving no room for error in the embellishments. In Chopin, a rubato style leaves plenty of room for flourishes. With a strict rhythmical style, the slightest change in tempo, to accommodate grace notes and appoggiaturas, becomes glaringly obvious.

Swanson is young and personable, and it is to be hoped that he wiill follow James Scott’s advice: “Don’t Jazz Me—I’m Music,” the title of one of his later Rags.

It will be interesting on Sept. 30 to compare what Richard Dowling does with Joplin in his “Great Scott” recital at Studzinski Hall.

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

Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest Shares the Madness

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 8, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, before an over-flow crowd Tuesday night at Darrows Barn, continued its tradition of making unusual works not only accessible but enjoyable.

The evening started out with the most avant of the avant garde— two works for solo violin played by virtuoso Jennifer Koh. “Moto Perpetuo,” by David Ludwig, was commissioned by Koh as part of her “Shared Madness” series, now up to 34 pieces that explore the most far-out possibilities of the violin.

She began with a shorter work from the same “Madness” series, “Kinski Paganini,” by Missy Mazzoli, that references Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the film “Paganini” by Klaus KInsky, as inspired by the Devil as the violinist.

If that work was wild, the perpetual motion piece was even further out, with a series of variations interrupted by shrieks, sul ponte hollow sounds, and col legno (playing on the wood), that sounds like crumpling paper. I don’t think Paganini could have played it, Devil or not. The audience loved it.

The shift in mood to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, with pianist Thomas Sauer, was not as radical as it might have been, since she began with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” an aria that requires as much virtuosity to sing as a Paganini Caprice does to play.

Aldrich is a soprano on the verge of greatness, if not already there, and her aria was spectacular. For emotional intensity, however, I preferred the four Strauss songs that followed. I know enough German to appreciate the dark poetry of love and loss that the songs portray, but merely the variations in tone and phrasing were enough to bring tears to your eyes. I want to hear Aldrich in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sauer did not so much as accompany the singer as collaborate with her in creating dramatic scenes. HIs dynamic range and tempi were a perfect match for Aldrich’s sensitive portrayals.

Sauer demonstrated another sort of technical fireworks and endurance in the final work on the program, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45, of Gabriel Fauré. The turbulent and virtually unceasing piano part often seems as if the composer feared being penalized for a rest.

The quartet is a strange work indeed, Fauré has been called the Brahms of France, but I think he is closer to Max Reger, flirting with atonality but never quite taking the leap. It also owes a great deal to the composer’s friend St.Saens, who showed how much life remained in “old fashioned” forms.

In spite of the continuous presence of the piano, it blended surprisingly well with the strings—Koh on violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and festival founder Wilhelmina Smith, cello— producing harmonies that could belong only to Fauré.

The quartet ends with a glorious waltz that doesn’t climax, but simply ends when the composer decides that it’s gone on long enough. It earned a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Future concerts of the Chamberfest will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays until August 18. For information see www.saltbaychamberfest.org.

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

The Best and the Brightest at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 31, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Ying Brothers’ strategy of presenting some of the world’s finest string quartets (including their own) at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, seems to be paying off. The Monday night concerts, at which most of the groups appear, have been sold out for weeks.

When I was a student, I was advised that string quartets were the highest form of music, enjoyed only by the cognoscenti. Maine seems to have a lot of cognoscenti, since I heard another quartet, at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, play the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which concluded Monday’s program, just a week before.

Last night’s performance, by the Borromeo String Quartet, saw Studzinski Hall so full that ranks of students were seated on both sides of the stage, as at an old Vladimir Horowitz concert.

I did not care for the quartet’s use of glowing lap-top computer scores, but that is merely the personal prejudice of a confirmed Luddite.

The first notes of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, proclaimed that the audience was in the presence of something special. The harmony of four instruments, each with its own timbre, was so startlingly clear and precise that one could have listened to that chord for the entire evening.

Fortunately, that time warp did not happen, but the familiar score took on new meaning, with an emphasis on polyphony, and other characteristics of the late Beethoven, that influenced the young composer—right down to infuriating false cadences. The quiet ending held the audience spellbound for a moment before the first applause. (Or were they expecting another fake ending?)

My favorite of the evening was the String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) by Györgi Ligeti,  a highly imaginative and resourceful work that requires the utmost virtuosity. Unlike the motifs in much “contemporary music,” the germ that generates all of the metamorphoses is easy to follow. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen referred to it as “slime crawling upwards,” and pointed out that, unlike Waldo, it is everywhere. It is also capable of generating some beautiful patterns, including a Viennese waltz. The work owes a great deal to Bartok’s Nocturnes, and surpasses them in some ways. The tricky polyrhythms and prestissimo passages seem virtually impossible, but the quartet did not miss a beat.

I must confess that I liked the Sebago-Long Lake version of the Schumann Quintet better than the Borromeo’s, which seemed almost too perfect. There were also some balance problems with the Steinway concert grand, played by Pei-Shan Lee, which might have been solved by a lid partially closed.

The last two movements were more exciting. In the third,  Lee seems to have said the hell with it, it’s a piano concerto, and in the fourth the quartet let their hair down and made a real contest of it. The result was the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation I’ve seen at Studzinski Hall.

The final concerts of the Festival, excluding those of the Young Artists series, will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Studzinski Hall, and Friday, Aug. 4, at Crooker Theater. The latter will feature the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, with Joseph Kalichstein as pianist and conductor.

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

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.