Last night before the sold-out opening performance of Cincinnati Opera's performance of Carmen, soprano Margaret Russo was named the winner of the first "Opera Idol" contest. Russo — a 25-year-old copywriter from Zionsville, Ind. — will receive a $3,500 contract with Cincinnati Opera.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended my first "Met Opera: Live in HD" transmission at the Regal Cinema in Deerfield Township — John Adams' Doctor Atomic.
For several years Joshua Jeremian seemed to be onstage everywhere in Cincinnati. He was a regular in opera productions at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, where he was pursuing a master’s degree and then an artist’s diploma (additional graduate-level training) as an opera singer. But he was glad to find performing opportunities with many Cincinnati perfroming arts institutions. In 2005 he played a pair of princes in Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s holiday musical, Sleeping Beauty. (In fact, the big-voiced baritone was nominated for a 2006 Cincinnati Entertainment Award for his performance at ETC.)
Not much theater as summer gets rolling locally, but it is time for Cincinnati Opera, which opened its 91st season on Thursday with a production of Verdi's Rigoletto. It's a tragic story about a foolish father who tries to protect his daughter by hiding her away from the world, leading to her death.
The Cincinnati Playhouse's production of The Fantasticks is a great choice for theater this weekend, but you might have a hard time finding seats. I've had two friends tell me they tried to get in and were told that the performance they hoped for was sold out. You can try to get on a waiting list (box office number is 513-421-3888) for a show that's really worth seeing.
The main event Thursday evening was not a part of Performa 13. Instead, the evening saw my virgin visit to the Metropolitan Opera to take in the final night of composer (and frequent Cincinnati visitor) Nico Muhly's Two Boys. Muhly became the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Met when they asked him to create a new work in 2006. Having a run in 2011 in London in a co-production with English National Opera, Two Boys finally made its American debut last month.
Based on true events in Manchester, England, 10 years ago, the story centers on a seemingly normal 16-year-old boy and his involvement in a confusing web of chat room relationships that ultimately lead to him stabbing and nearly killing a 13-year-old boy. It was, shall we say, not your standard opera fare. While I've not been to many an opera in my life thus far, I don't imagine there have been many to have featured projected chat acronyms and two separate instances of onstage masturbation. But on to the show.
The story of Two Boys is a complicated one, without question. A young boy has been stabbed, his friend and the only witness, Brian, is the key suspect, and an over-worked and under-appreciated police detective is tasked with putting the pieces together in a case she never wanted to take. As we begin to learn more about Brian, we are shown a world of chat room conversations and desperate boys seeking connections that mean something. By the end, we understand that the young boy pretended to be three different people in various roles and chats with Brian, concocting an insanely complex story before, essentially, convincing Brian to stab him while he would repeat, “I love you, bro” to the dying boy. Everyone has access to a search engine, so I'll let you look up the story on your own...
A certain triumph for Two Boys is the set design and realization of an online world on a physical stage. Multiple large-scale projections land upon movable walls that dance across the stage at various depths. Frequently these walls become transparent and reveal young people inside, half-illuminated by laptop screens. The multimedia execution inspired and amazed, serving to highlight the production's digital world concept and add a new and exciting layer to a traditional performance form.
Knowing Muhly's work rather well, and having enjoyed the chance to see him twice in Cincinnati in the past 18 months as part of MusicNOW and Tatiana Berman's Constella Festival, I was eager to hear what he had done for Two Boys. I was somewhat surprised — though pleased — to find that this work did not veer too far from his compositional oeuvre; dark with intricate rhythms, the score never threatens to take complete control of the production, while the influence of modern composers like Benjamin Britten and Meredith Monk, as he acknowledged in the program notes, could be felt throughout. For me, the standout compositional moments came in the form of choral scenes performed by the company carrying laptops in their hands, faces lit and animated by the screens, feeling like a reference to the pull of the digital world and the countless hours young people like Brian spend seeking something of meaning in an environment of empty promises. Multi-layered lines repeating chat room requests and responses, the voices build to a disorienting swirl. In these moments, the marriage of precocity, tradition, and progressivism felt too immense to not hold your breath.
Don't walk. Run to the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) to catch the remaining performances of La Calisto, an opera composed in 1653 that's equal parts romance and raunch, performed by a superb cast of singers, instrumentalists and dancers who are all clearly having a wonderful time.
Composer Franceso Cavalli was savvy enough to take opera out of palaces and into public theaters, where he made a fortune. He used the story of virgin Calisto, a follower of the goddess Diana, who is seduced by Jove and transformed into a bear by the vengeful Juno. Diana has her own problems with hormones and so does another of her followers. There's not much sacred and a lot of profane, not to mention profanity.
There's a lot of transformation going on: Jove disguises himself as Diana to get it on with Calisto, meaning that bass baritone Daniel Okulitch puts on a long white robe, dons a wig and sings in convincing falsetto. A horny follower of Diana is sung by a male, a high soprano takes on the role of a frustrated satyr — and just what gender are the rest of Pan's satyrs and Diana's huntresses? Ted Huffman's staging is witty and occasionally wild; the battle between Pan's and Diana's tribes seems to involve more than the six or seven dancers onstage, thanks to the acrobatic choreography of Zack Winokur.
Okulitch sings Jove with the requisite authority and gravitas, which also renders him ridiculous when lust for Calisto overtakes him. Okulitch is equally adept singing in falsetto, which is no easy task when it involves vocal ornamentation. Andrew Garland, a great recitalist with innate comic instincts, is a natural as Jove's gofer Mercury.
Aaron Blake may be diminutive in stature but he has a huge, ringing tenor, and he was a hilarious Pan. Michael Maniaci sang Diana's lover Endymion, his pure male soprano giving the role genuine tenderness. Lyric tenor Thomas Michael Allen sang the role of libidinous nymph Linfea.
The women are all excellent, especially soprano Nathalie Paulin, a convincingly innocent Calisto. Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano was a formidable Diana, singing with authority and melting emotion. Alisa Jordheim's agile soprano easily handled the demands of the frustrated Satirino, and Alexandra Deshorties embodies vengeance and fury as Juno.
The chamber orchestra is joined by the phenomenal Catacoustic Consort and during intermission, a lot of the audience stopped by the orchestra pit to check out the theorbos, Baroque harp, lirone and viola da gamba. Conductor David Bates led a lively, nuanced reading of the score.
The action plays out on a unit set used for last year's Galileo Galilei, with a wonderful star curtain that descends as Calisto ascends to the heavens to become Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper.
La Calisto is Cincinnati Opera's first Baroque opera and they couldn't have made a better choice. It's heavenly.