keith clark

Astoria Music Festival’s St. John Passion: Dramatic effect

Performance of J.S. Bach’s choral-orchestral masterpiece takes an opera-worthy approach.


If you haven’t been to Astoria in while, you’ve missed some things. No, not the Goonies, but the changes all over the city and environs. Boutique hotels and vintage kitsch, fabulous restaurants and a riverwalk. And then there is passionate music.

Star-studded with nationally and internationally known singers and instrumentalists, the Astoria Music Festival has grown from its founding in 2003, with just a single work (The Marriage of Figaro) featuring university students, to this year’s cornucopia of diverse offerings over a period of 17 days. The total cast includes Northwest singers such as Amy Hansen, Richard Zeller and Angela Meade, and players Sarah Kwak (concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), organist Henry Lebedinsky, and stellar lutenist Hideki Yamaya.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival's performance of Bach's St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Last Saturday night featured the first choral work of the Festival: J.S. Bach’s Johannes Passion (St. John Passion). Keith Clark, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival, staged the sacred offering for full dramatic effect and the overall effect was stirring.

This is one of Bach’s greatest “operas.” That is to say, the four Passions of Christ (only two of the four are left to us: St. John and St. Matthew) were written to use all the tools of an opera (aria, recitative, arioso, chorus) to portray the drama in the Passion story. They’re called Passions, because that genre is specifically from one of the synoptic gospels narrating the “Passion week,” leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. They are as dramatic as any opera.


By Jeff Winslow

A storm at sea, drunken swordplay, a hero insecure to the point of tragic flaw, and a sadistic villain playing him like a cheap honky-tonk piano, leading to murder and suicide – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Otello,” adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare, is certainly no picnic in the park.

But wait – that’s exactly what it is! Portland’s own international maestro Keith Clark narrates – spellbindingly, if history is any guide – and directs four star soloists, a live orchestra and chorus in Portland SummerFest’s 11th Annual Opera production at Washington Park Amphitheater, next to the Rose Gardens, at 6 pm on Friday, August 2, and at Concordia University Campus Green at 6 pm August 4. That’s two parks, not just one. And you are more than welcome to bring your picnic.

SummerFest at Concordia

SummerFest at Concordia

“Otello” is one of those rare works in which a composer who is a past master at capturing an audience’s attention and holding it, an utterly practical man of the theater, goes and does exactly what he pleases, bringing to bear a whole lifetime of experience and imagination. Far from being played out, Verdi in his 70’s – not unlike the five 75-year-old American composers featured at a recent Chamber Music Northwest concert – was at the absolute peak of his powers.

And what was his pleasure? All his creative life, Verdi was positioned against Richard Wagner, that noisy high-flown German, as the champion of Italian opera: direct, visceral and earthy. It was time to pick and choose what Verdi considered the best of Wagner’s harmonic and structural innovations, pare them down to their essence, and make them his own. The result is a double rarity, in that it is also a synthesis of the two great 19th century operatic traditions. Without losing any directness, Verdi infused “Otello” with a dazzling richness that to this day entrances the novice and connoisseur alike.


This weekend, the Astoria Music Festival opens at the Liberty Theater with a performance of Bellini’s opera Norma. Portland composer Jack Gabel, who’s handling publicity for the festival, talked to conductor Keith Clark about the festival and the production.

What a big project.

This is the tenth anniversary of the Astoria Music Festival. What started as a modest opera project with Oregonʼs great voice teacher Ruth Dobson and a group of young singers has grown like kudzu, and this summer features 23 concerts and two operas. We have eclectic tastes, so this summer mixes familiar symphonic and operatic repertoire with shows ranging from early 17th century Italian music of Monteverdi to HD music video created live by Academy Award-wining technical wizard artist J-Walt.

And isnʼt it bigger this year?

Yes, weʼve added a third weekend this summer which includes two fully staged performances of The Magic Flute and “Two Ways of Hearing Bach” – two performances of J.S. Bachʼs “Goldberg” Variations: the original keyboard version featuring pianist Andrew Brownell and a string orchestra arrangement with Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Andrew is a Portland native, now based in London, who is a winner of the International Bach Competition in Leipzig, and Monica and the PBO are the Dream Team for this repertoire.

Astoria Music Festival artistic director
Keith Clark

What are your initial thoughts about Norma?
Norma is called the greatest Italian bel canto opera. But itʼs much more than that — this is a different universe than even the finest of Rossini and Donizettiʼs mannered comedies or historic tragedies. On one hand, it is the culmination of the Baroque opera seria tradition, a position it shares with Mozartʼs Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito or Rossiniʼs Tancredi. On the other, itʼs among the first Romantic operas that opened the door for Wagner and influenced his arch rival Meyerbeer.

Wagner and Bellini – whatʼs with that?

Wagner adored Norma and conducted it just six years after its premiere. He defended Bellini against intense German criticism of Italian opera with a must-read essay about the importance of melody. He even wrote a little-known aria, “Norma il predisse, o Druidi,” for Oroveso and menʼs chorus that he inserted into his Norma production – itʼs totally Italianate and would stump anyone on a “name the composer” quiz. He composed Rienzi at that same time, and you certainly hear Bellini lurking in the shadows of that grand opera, and I canʼt listen to the Act I Walküre love music without thinking of Bellini.

I see a pile of books and scores on your piano. How do you go about preparing something like Norma?
[The great British conductor] Colin Davis said that a conductorʼs job is to read, and thatʼs the best part of our job. Another great conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, wrote an important book called The Composerʼs Advocate, and that really sums it up: our task as performers is to try to uncover the composerʼs intent and present it to the public.

In the case of Norma, this means going back to the original score and scraping off barnacles that have latched on since 1831. Musicology is just catching up with Italian opera, and much work is being done these days to correct misconceptions that have become accepted as “tradition.” As Mahler said, “Tradition ist Schlamperiei,” an untranslatable Viennese word that means far more then “sloppiness.” It implies being too lazy to tidy up and just muddling through. Itʼs certainly important to honor tradition, but not at the expense of a composerʼs original intentions.

Whatʼs on your reading list?

An important American authority of this repertoire is Philip Gosset, and his writings are indispensible, especially the book Divas and Scholars, terms not often found in the same sentence. But the most authoritative Bellini expert is Bellini himself, and weʼre fortunate to have his original manuscript, which is the foundation of my preparation. There are revelations on every page.

Angela Meade sings in the Astoria Music Festival’s
2011 production of Il Trovatore.
Photo: Dwight Caswell

Youʼve assembled quite a cast.Thatʼs an understatement! Angela Meade has taken the world by storm and is fast becoming the dramatic coloratura of our time. She burst onto the stage as Norma, and the role is now her calling card. She was stunning in Astoriaʼs Il Trovatore last summer and we are honored to have her back.

Normaʼs deceitful lover Pollione will be Cuban-born tenor Raul Melo, for many years a Metropolitan Opera stalwart. Portlandʼs own Richard Zeller, another Met veteran and a regular member of the Astoria team, will sing the role of Normaʼs father Oroveso. And itʼs truly luxury casting to have the magnificent American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Adalgisa.

But Iʼve always thought the role of Adalgisa was for mezzo-soprano.

Youʼre right, thatʼs the way itʼs usually performed. But hereʼs where scholarship comes in. Bellini composed the part of this young, love-smitten virgin for a lyric soprano. His original Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, went on to become one of the most celebrated singers of the 19th Century. She was one of Rossiniʼs favorites, sang the first Nonina in Donizettiʼs Don Pasquale and Elvira in Belliniʼs I Puritani, and won fame for her own interpretation as Norma. Clearly she was no mezzo!

Bellini knew what he was doing in casting Adalgisa as a high light voice. Sheʼs the younger mirror image of Norma: each has betrayed her sacred vows and lost her heart (and probably more) to a dashing Roman officer. Norma recalls her own joys of forbidden love and rejoices with the young girl in their sensational first duet. Of course the plot thickens when Norma discovers that the guy is the same Roman as her own secret lover and the father of her kids. Adalgisa is young, fragile, and vulnerable. Her singing range is identical to Normaʼs, and their beautiful duets entwine two equal voices. And, look: the composer wrote “soprano” in his score.


Practicality is often the mother of bad habits. The term “mezzo-soprano” is relatively new and the mezzo repertoire is limited, so theyʼve inherited parts originally labeled simply “soprano.” Mozartʼs Dorabella or Cherubino are good examples of soprano roles almost always sung by mezzos now, but a look at original cast lists often reveals the composersʼ different intentions. When such “traditions” are repeated over time until “everybody does it that way,” the composerʼs intentions are forgotten, and Adalgisa ends up as a mezzo. But a darker, lower voice is inappropriate for the sweet young girl, and when the Act II duet is transposed down for the mezzo, weʼre denied the thrill of hearing Norma and Adalgisa each soaring to high “C”s.

The Astoria Music Festival begins this weekend with a “celebrity recital” on Saturday afternoon, June 16th, with the same program featured at Portland’s Old Church on Thursday, June 14th, starring Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalfour cellist Sergey Antonov, and Portland pianist Cary Lewis playing music of Poulenc, Smetana and a rarity by long time Oregon Coast resident Ernest Bloch. Bellini’s Norma hits the stage Saturday evening, followed by an orchestral concert on Sunday. The festival continues through July 1, with 22 events in 17 days, most held in Astoria’s Liberty Theater. Complete schedule is available here, and information about tickets, directions and more is at the festival website.

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