Saturday, December 20, 2014

La Traviata: Met Opera Showcases a Rising Diva

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 16, 2014

Met Opera Photos: Ken Howard

"La Traviata" continues through January 24 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Visit for tickets and show information

NEW YORK--Few operas have been so emblematic of the genre and have inspired such loyalty as Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata. Since its premiere in Venice, that most decadent of cities (next to New Orleans, which in many ways, emulates it with its annual Mardi Gras celebrations,  originating in Venice in the time of the Medicis), has been performed countless times around the globe and is the most popular entry,  on the annual calendars of most opera companies. La Traviata was first performed at the Met in 1883, within a month of the company's opening, and has appeared in all but 15 performances there after a ten year hiatus.

La Traviata is based on the novel "La Dame aux Camelias" (1852) written by the great Black French writer Alexandre Dumas. The opera was originally entitled "Violetta" after the main character, and was premiered at La Fenice opera house in Venice to mixed reviews. The current title "La Traviata" translates loosely to be "a fallen woman," and, as such, was censored by the local authorities who demanded that the opera change its original production from a contemporary setting to sometime in the distant past (c. 1700). It was not until the 1880s that the current "realistic" production that we now see, was staged.

Today, La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world, placing number one on the Operabase list as of the 2012/13 season.

In the opera, Violetta, sung by the beautiful and voluptuous Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka,  is a wealthy "kept" woman, a courtesan, who is a highly paid companion to the wealthy men of her time. She is introduced at a party to a young nobleman, Alfredo Germont. sung brilliantly by native Philadelphia tenor Stephen Costello. At first meeting, she sings to him of her belief in free love, but gives him a camellia and tells him to return when the flower has wilted, which means he will see her the next day. Realizing her gesture will mean an end to her wanton life, she sings of her conflicting emotions, in the first of several familiar arias that are sung with both technical and emotional facility by Rebeka. Her silvery high notes, which are marked with a burnished brilliance and restraint that builds to an eruptive crescendo, are a marvel to behold. Her aria in the Third Act, when she realizes that she is dying, is one of the most spine-chilling moments of the entire Met season.

Marina Rebeka is not only an exceptional singer, she is a consumate performer. Her emotive "dance of death" in which she both celebrates her life and abandons herself to impending death is miraculous. She starts slowly, then begins to spin wildly, like a whirling dervish. The choreography is reminiscent of the death dances practiced by inigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

The spare, modernistic production by Willy Decker, pares the visual elements to the minimum, which puts the focus squarely on the central story line of impending death. A huge clock with an ominous,  figure with white hair and dark suit,  silently watching the proceedings from the sidelines, is an uncomfortable reminder of her fate. The clock advances throughout the opera and finally reaches center stage in the final act, with the ominous figur, the spectre of death, becoming an active part of the action.

The opera chorus, directed by Donald Polumbo, with extensive choreography by Athol Farmer, is an intregal part of the action. Dressed in monochromatic costumes and donning masks that mock the central character in bizarre, cartoonish fashion, they are like a choreographed Greek chorus, telegraphing the story's progression through song and skillfully plotted dance. Set and Costume Designer Wofgang Gussman created an atmosphere in which contrasts in colors and textures, with eye-popping focal points, such as brightly colored fabrics draped over the sparse furnishings and, sometimes, an almost bare-skinned Violetta.  Genoa, Italy-based conductor Marco Armiliato  finds just the right pacing to bring this moving train of a tale from the vortex of the heroine's troubled beginnings to its fatal conclusion.

La Traviata is Grand Opera at its finest, with a meteroic rising star in the lead role and a virile, golden-voiced tenor, Stephen Costello, as her leading man, Alfredo. Quinn Kelsey, a young. robust baritone from Honolulu, does a terrific job of conveying the gravity of the role of the elder Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's disapproving father.

Sadly, Traviata is not on the schedule for any upcoming Met Live HD performances. With the removal of The Death of Klinghoffer from the schedule due to protests earlier this season, perhaps a last minute addition to the roster might be considered. It would be a shame for the world to miss out on this tremendous remounting of a production and its stellar cast. The next Met Live HD production is Lehar's The Merry Widow in a New Production with Renee Fleming, Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 12:55pm ET with a U.S. Encore Wednesday, January 21 at 6:30pm local time. Check or fathomevents. com for theatre locations and tickets. Upcoming La Traviata performances are December 22, 27 and 30 and January 7, 10, 14, 17, 21 and 24. Check for showtimes and tickets.
Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva assumes the role of Violetta from January 14 on. Yoncheva made her Met debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 2013.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 Marina Rebeka as Violetta
 Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Marina Rebeka as Violetta and (below) Violetta with the Met Opera chorus

Handel's Messiah: New York Philharmonic

Handel's Messiah Presented by the Robert Hekemian Family Foundation

A boy soprano and added period instruments give renewed energy to a stellar Holiday tradition

NEW YORK--The added innovations of a thoroughly enthralling boy soprano, in the person of 11 year old Connor Tsui, of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and, a  long-necked lute called the theorbo, played by Guest Artist Daniel Swenberg and the conductor playing a small, harpsichord-like instrument called the virginal, give some added punch to an informed and emotive reading of the Holiday classic, Handel's Messiah at the New York Philharmonic. Tonight's performance, Saturday, December 20 at 7:30pm, provides the final opportuniy to see this year's stellar edition. Visit for ticket availability.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, in his second appearance since his Philharmonic debut in 2012, leads the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir of Princeton, New Jersey, in a sensitive and subtly nuanced performance of this deeply moving religious recitative. Wedow, a member of The Julliard School faculty, is specialist in historically informed performances.

An ubiquitous staple of the Holidays, this presentation veers itself away from the overly edited,  high-volume vocal and orchestral pryrotechnics common to many productions. This is a more low-key, scholarly rendition. Employing the Barenreiter edition, edited by John Tobin, it adds many rarely-heard choral sections and arias, including the short introductory recitatives from the boy soprano. I have never heard them in all of my many years of both performing the Messiah as a youth and viewing it as an adult.

Young Master Tsui, singing entirely from memory, while the other soloists worked form the score, displayed a poise far beyond his years, and a clear, decisive tone throughout his short proclomations. Accompanied by Mr. Wedow on the virginal, it was a moment of angelic beauty.

British Countertenor lestyn(correct spelling) Davies was the sole standout of the evening, with a soft, emotionally charged vocal reading of librettist Charles Jennens' words, which were inspired by various passages from the Bible. The Messiah depicts Christ's Coming, His humble birth and later events surrounding his life on earth, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Swedish Soprano Camilla Tilling, Canadian baritone James Westman and tenor Michael Slattery lend operatic authority to this inspired performance of Handel's masterpiece.

Eschewing the baton to conduct the orchestra and chorus using subtle cues from his supple hands and pointed finger gestures, Conductor Wedow created an enthralling tapestry of sound from the string-dominated orchestra, which featured early period instruments. Trumpet solos, played by Matthew Muckey and keyboard solos from Paolo Bordignon on harpsichord and Kent Tritle on the organ, lent majestic authority to the proceedings,  Handel's Mdssiah is an enthralling performance that is a highlight of the frenetic Holiday Season. It is also one of the few,  profound reminders of its religious roots, which have been, sadly, largely overshadowed by commercialism.

Below: Gary Thor Wedow conducts the New York Philharmonic in his 2012 debut
 Photo credit: New York Times
 Conductor Gary Thor Wedow

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Met Live HD Encore: Die Meistersinger An Opera Lover's Dream

Met Encore Presentation tonight, Wednesday, December 17, at 6:30pm local time,
Canadian Encore February 7 at 12pm local time, Monday, February 23 at 6pm local time

The next Met Live HD presentation features Renee Fleming starring in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," Saturday, January 17 at 12:55pm ET

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Metropolitan Opera Photos by Ken Howard

NEW YORK--Tonight, Wednesday, December 17th, is a special night for opera lovers world-wide, because they will have an opportunity to see the Met Opera's Live HD Encore Presentation of Wagner's Die Meistersinger in select theatres at 6:30pm, local time. The production, a revival of a production first mounted by the company seven years ago, is a dream-come-true for sincere lovers of the art form.

The production is a triumph on many levels. Just go down the checklist. It is Met Opera Music Director James Levine's first revisiting of the works of Richard Wagner since 2011, and he is in top form here. The international cast is a collection of the top Wagnerian singers in the world, making this a rare opportunity to see the likes of beloved Met veteran, bass-baritone James Morris as shoemaker Hans Sachs, South African heldentenor Johan Botha, another Met favorite, as the young knight, Walther, German soprano Annette Dasch as rhapsodic love interest Eva,  celebrated German bass Hans-Peter Konig as the town goldsmith, Pogner, Johannes Martin Krankle as the town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser and Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in the role of Magdalene, Eva's attendant. The Metropolitan Opera chorus, directed by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo and the rich, world-class sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, are reason enough to sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the lengthiest, but most satisfying evenings of opera this season.

The story unfolds in 16th Century Nuremberg, a regimented society, dominated by the culture of professional guilds. The opera takes place in this claustrophobic, highly regimented world,with the focal point the guild hall of the meistersingers, the hallowed fraternity of vocal musicians who are revered by all. To become a "master singer," candidates must pass a series of singing trials, which are governed by a byzantine set of rules. The test is graded with an intricate scoring system, controlled by one Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk, who is young Walther's nemisis. The test goes beyond singing. It encompasses personal aesthetics, moral integrity, and creative amplitude, all of which Walther has in abundance.

The young knight, Walther von Stolzing(Johan Botha), has fallen in love with the town goldsmith's daughter, the voluptuous Eva(Annette Dasch), who has been promised in engagement to the winner of the guild of meistersinger's song contest. Walther plans to win the contest in order to ask for her hand, but it thwarted at every turn by the town clerk, Meckmesser (Johannes Martin Kranzle), who keeps rigorous count of the impressionable young knight's many missteps and unorthodox singing methods. Despite the town clerk's condemnation, Walther has pricked the curiosity of Hans Sachs (Michael Volle), the town cobbler and himself a master singer. Sachs is intrigued by Walther's beguiling emotional appeal and his zealous devotion to inspired singing.

The opera is a long sit, six hours, with the second act alone clocking in at  two hours. However, the rewards are infinite. Let's put it this way, I would rather sit through five hours of Wagner's Meistersinger, than an entire afternoon of NFL Sunday, with its frequent penalty replay delays, inane commentary and non-sensical commercials. Thank God for the pause button and DVR!
Thankfully, great opera is now as near as your local movie theatre and soon, hopefully, on your home DVR.

Superlatives like "sublime," "absolutely fantastic," and "a superlative performance," that have been used in other reviews of this production, are just the start. Suffice to say that this reviewer has already seen the production twice, both on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House and Live in HD at the Empire 25 in Times Square, and were it not for a special performance of Handel's "The Messiah" at the New York Philharmonic, an annual ritual, would be back in the Live HD audience again tonight!

"There's a lot of humor written into this opera," Maestro James Levine told Met Live HD backstage interviewer and soprano superstar Debora Voigt. "We see the singer/actors reacting to what's happening in a scene just as much as they are absorbed in the scene. There's a lot of their perception that the audience becomes a part of. "

For tickets and  theatre locations, visit or
 Johan Botha as Walther and Annette Dasch as Eva
 Johannes Martin Kranzle as Beckmesser
 Johan Botha (Walther) with Hans-Peter Konig as Pogner and (Below),
with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Second City's "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! Presented by Goodman Theatre

"Scrooge You!" The perfect tonic for Holiday Blues

What do Superman, celebrity chef Rick Bayless and Little Orphan Annie have in common? If you're lucky enough to snag a ticket to The Second City's production of "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!" Presented by Goodman Theatre in the intimate confines of the Owen Theatre, you'll have a riotous time finding out why.  Due to high ticket demand, Goodman Theatre extends "Twist Your Dickens" through Jan 3.  A special bar package is included for New Year's Eve. Visit for tickets and information.

Starring Second City veteran Francis Guinan as Scrooge with Brian Boland taking over the role starting December 26, Frank Caeti whizzes in on a skateboard as the Ghost of Christmas Past, full of campy '80s references, and Peter Gwinn steals the show as a glib Jacob Marley. Sayjal Joshi is a salty Tiny Tim and Beth Melewski is  a super-hip and saucy Ghost of Christmas Present.  The cast is superbly rounded out by an acerbic Robin Scott as Mrs. Cratchit and an emphathetic Tim Stoltenberg as Bob Cratchit. The creative team really makes it all come together: Tom Budewitz created the simple, but imaginative sets, Rachel Lambert provided costumes that both evoked the period and a bit of the modern day for hilarious contrast and Gina Patterson did a creative job with the lighting. Mara Filler is Production Stage Manager.  

The audience is as much a part of the play as the cast. Audience "misdeeds" written in the lobby prior to the show are included in the onstage banter, as are audience reactions that are incorporated into the show on the spot. Its improv theatre at its best, and only as Second City can do it.  The production also includes local celebs from varying backgrounds. Opening night included celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who has had his own musical stage show and feast "Cascabel" this summer at Mag Mile's Lookinglass. Theatre. Future cameos are planned with WBBM TV's Bill Kurtis, celebrity sommelier and former "Check Please" host Alpana Singh and Chicago Cub's Len Kasper. 

Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort and directed by Artistic Director of the Second City Training Center Matt Hovde, "Twist Your Dickens" is, in the words of the LA Times, "riotous havoc.' It's just the tonic to cure Holiday Blues and, since the show changes every night, worth more than a single visit. One nice thing about this show is that, like its companion, the "real" Scrooge ala "A Christmas Carol," playing next door in the Albert Theatre, "Scrooge You!" is, with the exception of young children,  a show that can be enjoyed by virtually everyone. is the place for more information,