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‘Suor Angelica’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’ review: tearful tragedy and family farce

Portland State University Opera’s spring Puccini double-bill strikes a fine and fun balance

by ANGELA ALLEN

PSU Opera always surprises me with the high quality of its productions and the skill of its young singers, many of them undergraduates. This is not professional opera (though advisors and directors are professionals), but it can reach impressive heights, and does in this double bill of two very different, very short Giacomo Puccini one-acts.

The first is a sentimental tragedy that takes place in a convent’s courtyard; the second is a better known opera buffo crowded into a Florentine bedroom. The operas, each about 40 minutes, are expansive and efficient: They provide numerous roles for up-and-coming singers and designer Carey Wong’s clever set is deployed for both operas – an outside setting for Suor Angelica and an inside one for Gianni Schicci.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the performance continues April 25-30 at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Saori Erickson in PSU’s ‘Suor Angelica.’

Puccini wrote the operas with librettist Giovacchino Forzano in 1917-1918 and they were first performed with a third, Il Tabarro, at the Met in 1918. Like many opera composers, Puccini has a thing for vulnerable tragic heroines (think Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, La Boheme’s Mimi, etc.) and for sucking us into their dilemmas. But so what? Opera is about excess.

Sister Angelica was shuttled off to the convent seven years earlier for having an illegitimate child. Her haughty aunt, the Princess, sung and acted with requisite harshness by mezzo Grace Skinner, visits the convent and tells Angelica that her son has died. Devastated, Sister Angelica decides to kill herself – and does. At the end, there is a scene with Giotto-tinged-blue skies, floating clouds, and a Madonna in swirling white garb. The Madonna greets Angelica, and Angelica’s son joins her as she enters the pearly gates.

OK. It’s corny. It’s Puccini with a penchant for the syrupy, the over-the-top dramatic, the hopeless moments tinged with hope. But that’s our beloved Puccini.

As Sister Angelica, soprano Saori Erickson throws every inch of herself into Suor Angelica’s only aria, “Senza Mamma,” a fierce lament and love song to her dead child, Erickson makes the final part of the opera soar and fill Lincoln Hall with the help of a very competent student orchestra led by Ken Selden.

Erickson is a gifted singer mentored by professional soprano Pamela South, who has sung her share of Puccini roles with major opera companies. South’s other high-profile pupil of the night, soprano Hope McCaffrey, sings Lauretta in Gianni, the evening’s second opera. She shows her pipes and poise with the oft sung “O Mio Babbino Caro.” McCaffrey sings a bold and touching rendition of the popular aria, but her small role doesn’t dominate Gianni as Sister Angelica does the first tragic opera.

South is doing something right. These women seem to be going places. In 2016, Erickson won the “audience favorite” award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and several others over recent years.

PSU Opera’s ‘Gianni Schicci.’

Gianni is crowded and crazy with a big cast who portrays the disorganized family of the dying Buoso, a rich uncle of this greedy brood. The handsome Rinuccio (tenor Alex Trull) cooks up the plan to introduce the arrivist Gianni Schicchi to his family to solve the problems with the uncle’s will – Buoso has left everything to the friars – if he, Rinuccio, is allowed to marry Gianni’s daughter, the lovely Lauretta. When the arrivist arrives, he puts everything in motion, replacing the uncle on his deathbed and dictating a new will to the notary, where of course, Gianni ends up with the cream of the wealth.

The zany family’s antics zigzag over the stage and they’re funny, especially those of Shainy Manuel who sings bawdy bewigged redhead Zita. She wriggles her red-ruffled rear at the audience at crucial moments; she has excellent timing.

The music and libretto are sublimely matched in hilariousness, and baritone Darian Hutchinson, who sings Gianni with flair, puts the glue into this opera. Hutchinson graduates this spring from PSU’s music program; this is his sixth PSU role (he sang Figaro and the mayor in Doctor Miracle, among others). He has a future in opera if he wants to grab it.

The ensemble singing is roaring fun with each of the cast members staying in distinctive character. Some critics claim that Puccini lost an opportunity when he never produced a full-length comic opera with such an excellent piece like Gianni showcasing his proclivity for the ridiculous.

Be sure you stick around for both operas. PSU’s singers, instrumentalists and music faculty should feel pretty proud about producing this level of Puccini.

Portland State University Opera’s ‘Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi’ continues at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 28 and 29 and at 3 p.m. on April 30 at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.  Tickets are $30 adults, $27 seniors and $15 students at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall, online, or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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‘L’amour de Loin’ & ‘The Place Where You Started’: Love from Afar

Contemporary operas show the consequences of idealizing, or stereotyping, strangers

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about the premiere of yet another new opera. Much of the action is in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and Europe, of course, but signs of vitality are springing up even in places like Fort Worth and Long Beach. After decades of relentlessly retro programming, Oregon too shows recent signs of operatic revitalization: Christopher Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus, which this month revived the Portland composer’s original 2015 opera Viva’s Holiday and has a new opera based on Antigone coming next year; Opera Theater Oregon, which co-produced Viva and is bringing Eugene composer Justin Ralls’s Two Yosemites to Portland in June; Eugene Opera’s recent productions of operas by living composers; and even normally stodgy Portland Opera’s upcoming David Lang one-acts.

‘L’Amour de Loin’ is broadcast in select theaters December 21.

Along with Corbell’s re-Viva, this fall has brought two more contemporary operas to Portland, one internationally renowned, created by a pair of Parisian immigrants, and showing in a few Oregon movie theaters this Wednesday, December 21, the other homegrown. Both seem timely given today’s social concerts, showing the consequences of our perennial tendency to view others through the distorted lenses of our own desires — or fears.

Continues…

Portland State Opera review: Tasty amuse-bouches

PSU double bill menu features a pair of frothy, lightweight comedies

By ANGELA ALLEN

Double-billed with Georges Bizet’s silly Dr. Miracle, Bon Appetit is the more delicious of the one-acts cooked up this month by Portland State University Opera. It’s an indisputable hoot about Julia Child making a real-life “gateau chocolat.” The show plays through Dec. 13 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall’s 84-seat Studio Theater, a small space to contain such a lot of laughs – but it works.

How can anyone not love and re-love the endearing French chef saying/singing, “I love a good dry wine with my chocolate!” as she nonchalantly slathers icing over her cake.

A pair of food related one act operas are on the menu this weekend at Portland State. Photo: John Rudoff.

A pair of food related one act operas are on the menu this weekend at Portland State. Photo: John Rudoff.

The gawky Child, known as much for bringing French cuisine to middle America as she is for dropping a roast on air and recommencing her recipe with aplomb, is easy to make fun of, but she’s not easy to do right. Mezzo-soprano Christine Meadows, longtime PSU opera director, channels Julia seamlessly from helmet hair and pearls (and a clean towel at her waist) to her lilting phrasing. Presenting her cake, she sings/yodels: “It is nicer than a soufflé because it doesn’t fall!” in a crescendo of exuberance. The audience howled.

Meadows juggles real butter and cream, pans, wine and esprit as she sings Lee Hoiby’s opera that premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1989. The late American composer based the libretto on two episodes of The French Chef, Child’s public TV cooking show that ran from 1963-1973. Mark Shulgasser reworked the episodes for the opera, and for this production Meadows and stage director Kristine McIntyre watched numerous hours of Child “performing” her unpredictable food magic on the cooking program. All the effort shows.

Meadows, whose prodigious memory allows her to sing, talk and bake for the mini-opera’s entire 20 minute duration, gets down and dirty in this role. If you sit in the front row, expect a few splatters of cream and batter. Julia is not a particularly anal-retentive cook. She admits “this can really be quite a mess!” as she tosses her used measuring cups and bowls on the stage. Though generally suited to more elegant roles, Meadows makes the most of Julia’s iconic “je ne said quoi” habits. She captures Child’s love of life and food.

Janet Coleman plays the difficult piano score and Sarah Mini and Zachary Gaumond hang in there as silent TV studio workers.

Child/Meadows does make a real cake and someone in the front row is the lucky recipient of the finished piece de resistance. (The rest of us eat cake from Fred Meyer in the lobby post-show). You can bet this show took a lot of flour, butter and preparation.

Speaking of the versatile Meadows, she directs the music in the first of the show’s two pieces, Georges Bizet’s Doctor Miracle, which Bizet wrote at 18 (based on a play by Richard Sheridan) and which premiered in 1857. Strains of Carmen? Not yet, but it’s certainly a spoof on the serious operas of the day. The piece is as much goofy theater as light opera.

This is four-person (not including the talented Colin Shepard at the piano) classic farce of mixed identities, thwarted lovers, jokes on the father/mayor (sung by baritone Darian Hutchinson, who held the whole piece together), and a perhaps-poisoned omelet. The omelet takes 11 minutes from serving to eating. This scene is very funny.

Alexander Trull, who plays Laurette’s lover, Silvio, as well as the snake-oil doctor and a one-eyed servant, stole the show with his terrific timing and tenor. Madison Howard played the lovely spoiled Laurette with the difficult soprano part, and Emily Skeen performed Veronique, the slightly befuddled mother and wife. Stage director Brenda Nuckton added some funny dialogue along the way to keep things moving.

Bon Appetit and Dr. Miracle were produced with a minimum of props, fanfare, cast and instrumentation. But they were a blast of French-scented fresh air and as far away from stodgy opera as Bizet – or even the free-spirited Julia – could have hoped to get.

The operas play at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 13. Tickets: $24 for the general public; $17 for students and PSU faculty, through the PSU box office or by calling 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. She once interviewed Julia Child.

For our latest guest contribution from a Portland artist with special insights into another institution’s work, ArtsWatch asked former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Katie Taylor to preview Portland State University’s new production of the great 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc’s searing 1953 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which opens tonight, April 27, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the PSU campus.

 

End of scene by Jeff Johnson (JeffJohnson1) on 500px.com

PSU's Dialogues of the Carmelites/Photo Jeff Johnson

By Katie Taylor

Never one to shy away from a challenge, PSU Opera director Christine Meadows and her vocal staff chose Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites as this year’s vehicle for the program’s talented students. Dialogues is a tight, cerebral French drama from the ‘50s with gorgeous and very demanding music ably prepared by Meadows, principal opera coach Doug Schneider and PSU Orchestra conductor Ken Selden.

Carmelites is one of a number of notable ‘50s dramas based on past tragedies resulting from rigid, paranoid politics. Forbidden by French Revolutionary authorities to practice their religion, the nuns of the Carmelite order at Compiegne vow martyrdom, setting off a series of events that ends in tragedy.

“[The story is] more relevant today than ever with the self-immolation protests happening in the Middle and Far East,” says soprano May Picard, who is double cast in the leading role of Blanche de la Force with soprano Rachael Buckholt. “The fact that these are Catholic nuns in France is incidental. These were people who stood up for their beliefs and sacrificed themselves for the good of mankind. They symbolize the opposition to oppression everywhere.”

Carmelites is based on a true story. Before coming to Portland to start staging with the students, director David Edwards took a trip to Compiegne and Paris to learn about the real-life martyrs. He brought back photos, artifacts and books for the cast to look at and absorb.

“He is a wonderful person, and an even better director,” says Picard. “He is very good at helping us peel away the layers of our characters and their relationships.”

London-born Edwards is this year’s Jeannine B. Cowles Distinguished Visiting Professor of Opera. A former staff director at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Edwards now enjoys a successful international career as a freelance opera director with credits at La Scala, Milan, Staatsoper Vienna and San Francisco Opera, among others.

Picard was delighted with the choice of Carmelites for this year’s mainstage production and plans to keep the role of Blanche in her repertoire.

“This is definitely the most challenging role I’ve encountered, emotionally and vocally,” she says. “You must be something of a detective, combing through the score searching for clues that indicate different subtleties in your character’s personality. When I sang the role of Rose in Street Scene last year, there weren’t too many interpretations of her lines. ‘What good would the moon be unless the right one shared its beams? What good would dreams come true be if love wasn’t in those dreams?’ — relatively straightforward when compared to Blanche’s mystical outbursts.”

Last time I worked with May, she was wearing a bikini and standing in a crab shack as Fricka in Opera Theater Oregon’s production of ‘Baywatch/Das Rheingold.’ I’m looking forward to catching her flip side as a timid but super-tough nun.

Katie Taylor served as artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon from 2006-2011. Dialogues of the Carmelites opens tonight, Friday, April 27 at 7:30 pm at Lincoln Performance Hall (SW Broadway and Market). Additional performances follow on May 1, 4 and 5 at 7:30 pm, with a matinee on April 29 at 3pm. Tickets are available through PSU Box Office, 503-725-3307, or at any Ticketmaster.

 
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