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Magdalena Kozena, the high-profile, Czech mezzo-soprano, and her equally high-profile accompanist, the Russian-born, Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, chose a fascinating sample of repertoire for their recital Sunday night presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
Four of the five composers on the bill came from the mainstream, but the works selected for this occasion did not.
In Mussorgsky's song cycle "The Nursery," which evokes the alternately animated, awed and mischievous mindset of a child, Kozena offered an abundance of colorful vocal touches -- even a nose-thumbing gesture for good measure. Bronfman articulated the subtly brilliant keyboard part with terrific flair.
The exquisite, often wry sound world of Ravel's "Histoires Naturelles" likewise found both artists doing finely communicative work, especially in the lovely languor of "Le Martin-pecheur."
Kozena's dark, evenly produced tone found another great outlet in the six songs of romance and nature from Rachmaninoff's Op. 38.
Bronfman likewise summoned expressive power every step of the way, digging into the richly woven accompaniment. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff frequently ended art songs with elongated codas for the piano, and these passages took on extra value in Bronfman's hands.
Bartok's earthy "Village Scenes," with their deliciously spiky rhythms, inspired another burst of vivid music-making.
All of this would have been enough to make the recital distinctive, but there as more -- the local premiere of "Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound" by French composer Mac-Andre Dalbavie, a work co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall and Shriver Hall Concert Series.
The text, "The Unmoving Cloud" from Pound's "Cathay," has inspired a transparent, finely detailed setting from Dalbavie.
The vocal lines, sensual and elegant, convey the imagery of rain, loneliness, the comforts of nature and wine.
There are hazy hints of Debussy and Ravel along the way; even, in Melodie II, a touch of Rachmaninoff in the piano's dark harmonies. A keyboard motive that descends in the first song and ascends in the last provides a telling thread.
Kozena sang the music sensitively and articulated the English works more clearly than many a singer whose first language actually is English.
There was an affecting encore -- Schumann's "Wehmut" from "Liederkreis," which includes the line, "I can sometimes sing as if I were happy. But, in secret, tears well up ... no one feels the pains, the deep sorrow in the song."
Kozena produced her tenderest vocal shading of the evening here, reaching the lied's poignant heart, while Bronfman matched her nuance for nuance.
PHOTO OF MAGDALENA KOZENA BY MATTHIAS BOTHOR/DG
PHOTO OF YEFIM BRONFMAN BY DARIO ACOSTA
It looks like a full-fledged trend -- Baltimore theater companies adding performances of productions thanks to popular demand this winter.
First to announce was Everyman Theatre, which extended the run of "August: Osage County." Two more companies have likewise found themselves with hits.
Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" isn't for everybody, but this serious/humorous/surreal look at Rev. Martin Luther King's last night, April 3, 1968, has turned out to be "one of the highest grossing plays" in the 50-year history of Center Stage, the company reports.
Although the production, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, still has to close on Feb. 24 as originally scheduled, an extra performance has been added that day -- 7:30 p.m. (Scheduling conflicts prevent a longer extension.)
Meanwhile, Annex Theatre, one of the city's young, intrepid troupes, reports that, "due to an extremely positive audience reaction," two more weekends have been added to its production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus."
The show, directed by Mason Ross, opened Feb. 7 at the H&H Building downtown and was slated to finish up on the 17th. It will instead continue there through the weekends of Feb. 23 and March 1.
(You may recall that the Annex Theatre had hoped to be in a new, permanent home on North Avenue in a renovated fast food place, but there have been delays in the renovation process.)
PHOTO (Myxolydia Tyler, Shawn Hamilton in 'The Mountaintop') BY RICHARD ANDERSON
As Christmas 1914 approached, Benedict XV, who described the war as "the suicide of Europe," pleaded for a Christmas truce. The military leaders refused, but somehow, at several points along the trenches, a surreal cease-fire broke out anyway.
That short, peaceful spell inspired the 2005 film "Joyeux Noel," which focused on the experiences of some Scottish, French and German troops on a battlefield in Belgium. That film, in turn, inspired "Silent Night," an opera by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Institute faculty member who received the Pulitzer Prize in music last year for this extraordinary work.
Opera Philadelphia is presenting the East Coast premiere of "Silent Night" at the Academy of Music in an impressive co-production with Minnesota Opera, which commissioned and unveiled the piece in November 2011. (The final performance is Sunday.)
Music history is not ...
There are a few weak spots here and there (and maybe too many growling brass chords), but the score for "Silent Night" delivers. The composer's fundamentally tonal style communicates directly; his orchestra achieves prismatic power.
Puts writes well for the voice and has the advantage of a text by Mark Campbell, the librettist of choice for several composers. Campbell writes with a naturalness and concision that keep the plot and characters clear, the pacing effective.
(The two men have been commissioned by Minnesota Opera for another work, this one based on the vintage thriller "The Manchurian Candidate.")
Everything about that unlikely Christmas truce is fascinating. And, as was the case with the film version, the opera personalizes the event with telling glimpses into the lives that intersected on that gruesomely scarred countryside.
"Silent Night" grabs hold from the Prologue, which introduces the primary characters from each country at the moment when the war first touches their lives. As their nationalistic pride heats up, Puts creates a Charles Ives-worthy clash of harmonies to go with it.
In short order, those characters become multilayered and sympathetic. How they end up -- death, defection, transfer to other hideous fronts (punishment from top brass for the fraternization) -- hits home. There is much left in the snowy air as the final curtain falls.
Two key characters are stars of the German opera stage -- tenor Nikolaus Sprink and his Danish lover, soprano Anna Sorensen. They both find themselves at the front that December 1914, he in uniform in the trenches, she to perform for the nearby German high command.
Anna uses her connections to join Sprink on Christmas Eve and becomes part of the unexpected suspension of hostilities. When she sings "Donna nobis pacem" after a multinational Mass, the effect is riveting. The whole amazing scene, with all of its impossible hope, becomes focused on a single, plaintive voice.
That is just one of the many highlights in a work that gains strength from several little vignettes -- a letter-writing scene, an officer getting a haircut, a man clutching the corpse of his older brother. With each turn of the revolving stage, something fresh is learned about the people trapped in the war that couldn't possibly end all wars.
The atmospheric set (Francis O'Connor) is complete with bunkers, the ruins of a church and a no man's land where Sprink dares to tread, singing a song and inviting his foes to join him.
The sturdy cast, directed with a fine eye for subtle detail by Eric Simonson, includes a stirring performance by William Burden as Sprink. The tenor is especially affecting during his eloquent expression of despair about the war, sung against a long-sustained note in the orchestra.
Kelly Kaduce does a vibrant job as Anna. A more tender tone would be welcome in some of the high-reaching melodic lines, but the soprano's phrasing is emotionally telling throughout. Also on the German side, Craig Irvin gives a compelling performance as Horstmayer, the Jewish officer determined to serve the Fatherland.
Liam Bonner's mellow baritone and nuanced acting flesh out the French officer Audebert, who has one of the opera's finest moments -- as the lieutenant writes up the casualty list, a litany interspersed with thoughts about his wife, the vocal line spins gently over a haunting accompaniment of harp and strings.
Andrew Wilkowske shines as Audebert's droll aide, Ponchel. On the Scottish side, Zach Borichevsky sings stirringly as Jonathan Dale, a young soldier who cannot stomach this strange truce. Troy Cook is an urgent presence as the Scottish chaplain.
Michael Christie conducts the score with great sensitivity and draws beautifully detailed playing form the Opera Philadelphia orchestra.
"Silent Night" should be staged in Baltimore. How about a collaboration between Lyric Opera Baltimore and Peabody Opera in 2014, the centennial of the war and the Christmas truce? It would make an uplifting challenge for both organizations, and a fitting way to honor an extraordinary composer teaching in our midst.
PHOTOS BY KELLY & MASSA
As a person, Wagner was deplorable -- vain, arrogant, manipulative, viciously and relentlessly anti-Semitic. As an artist, he reached the highest peaks. His importance to the evolution of Western music cannot be overstated; the fusion of intellectual brilliance and emotional power that propels his works cannot be overvalued.
The best way to appreciate this achievement is in an opera house enjoying a full staging of a Wagner music drama, but that opportunity is not going to arise in Baltimore any time soon. The BSO is offering the next best thing -- a complete act from "Die Walkure" in concert form, with three excellent singers.
As a warm-up, there are samplings from "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger." And warm was the word on Friday.
Conductor Marin Alsop emphasized the grandeur and humanity of the "Meistersinger" Prelude in equal measure. There was propulsion, but not haste, in her approach, and that helped the ingenious counterpoint in the score to shine through. The ensemble sounded sure and robust.
The BSO's previous performances of the Prelude and "Liebestod" from "Tristan" over the past decade have been orchestra-only. This time, there was a soprano in the house to do the honors in the "Liebestod" -- the opera's soul-stirring conclusion, when Isolde, having lost her beloved Tristan, essentially dies of love.
As in previous performances of the Prelude I've heard her conduct, Alsop ...
In the "Liebestod," Heidi Melton didn't sound fully warmed up; top notes lacked ease. But the soprano's phrasing communicated Isolde's internal rapture vividly. Conducting this music for the first time with a vocalist, Alsop provided sensitive partnering. She kept the orchestra from swamping the singer, but hardly held back on passionate sweep.
Alsop was also leading a full act from a Wagner opera for the first time. What she achieved here suggests that she should consider doing more.
It is possible to extract more detail and nuance from Act 1 of "Walkure," the second of the four works that make up Wagner's towering "Ring of the Nibelung." But Alsop kept singers and orchestra on the same tight wavelength as she shaped this hour-long scene, maintaining a strong inner pulse that still allowed room for breadth.
This act introduces three pivotal characters of the "Ring" -- the heroic Siegmund who seeks refuge in a house that turns to be that of his long lost twin sister (soon-to-be lover) Sieglinde and her unpleasant husband, Hunding.
Brandon Jovanovich, as Siegmund, revealed a bright, warm tenor and an eloquent manner of phrasing. His top notes could have used a little more weight and stamina, but this was impressive Wagnerian singing just the same.
Melton blossomed as Sieglinde. Her vibrant, focused tone and attentiveness to text yielded a beautifully nuanced portrayal. She and Javonovich produced terrific intensity in the exultant closing minutes.
As Hunding, Eric Owens towered over everyone else onstage and unleashed a deeply resonant voice to match. His superb diction gave each word menacing impact.
Except for a wince-inducing slip or two in the brass section, the BSO delivered the goods handsomely, right from the dark, galloping music that opens the act. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski -- the whole cello section, for that matter -- made particularly subtle contributions in the score's most tender passages.
The gradually diminishing coughs during the performance and the rousing ovation afterward made it clear that there is an audience eager here for Wagner. How about the complete Act 2 of "Tristan" next?
The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff.
PHOTO OF HEIDI MELTON BY KRISTIN HOEBERMANN
"Shakespeare's R&J" examines the star-crossed lovers of Verona through the unexpected prism of a repressive, all-male Catholic boarding school. This brilliant and provocative work, created by Joe Calarco, first appeared in the late 1990s and has been widely performed since.
Calarco recently revised the piece, and that new version is receiving its North American premiere in a bracing, in-the-round production that he has directed with considerable flair.
The piece is wonderfully minimalist -- just four actors (the characters are unnamed), no set or costumes (save for preppy school uniforms), hardly any props (a long red cloth gets versatile use). The attention here is all on text and subtext.
The students are ...
They divvy up the parts and, bit by bit, slip fully into character. The comic and suggestive lines in Shakespeare's text get the amusingly crude delivery you would expect from teenage males. Each shift toward tragedy seems freshly compelling.
And what of the love story? Sure, boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's time, but that's not what this version is about; there is no imitation of a girlish voice or physical mannerism for Juliet.
Here, the dangerous situation Romeo and Juliet are in, defying the rules of their strictly demarcated society, is reinforced by the sight of two young men embracing those roles. The distinctions between play-acting and reality blur just enough to shake up everything.
Calarco neither pushes nor avoids homo-eroticism as the work proceeds. He merely puts an extra current in the air, adding one more dimension to a familiar tale of forbidden love that unfolds in an environment where that tale itself is forbidden.
As the students reach the end of their Shakespearean escape (references to "A Midsummer Night's" and the sonnets also pass tellingly through the piece) and prepare to return to the conformist, faceless grind, the Romeo hesitates. He is not ready to break the bond formed with his Juliet.
It's a brief, exceptionally poignant moment. On one level, it speaks to the issue of teens struggling with same-sex attraction, of course, but it's more about how all parting -- of friends, lovers, expectations, dreams -- is such (bitter)sweet sorrow.
Calareco gets admirable, finely polished work from the cast. Alex Mills leaps into the Romeo role with a disarming naturalness, matched by Jefferson Farber's vibrant take on Juliet. Rex Daugherty does colorful, nuanced work throughout, especially when portraying the Nurse. Joel David Santner completes the quartet in dynamic form.
Between them, scenic designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Chris Lee create visual magic at key moments, adding exquisitely expressive layers to the proceedings.
Matt Rowe's sound design plays a valuable role, too. But the most compelling sound -- other than the potent delivery of Shakespeare's language -- comes each time the students stop suddenly to gasp loudly for air, as if preparing to dive into deep, scary water.
"Shakespeare's R&J" rungs through March 3.
PHOTOS BY TERESA WOOD
It's partly a traditional musical, with at least the thread of a plot -- a woman who welds by day but would rather dance -- and new songs that advance the storyline, more or less.
It's partly a jukebox musical, with emphasis on the vintage songs that helped make the film so popular.
It also wants to be just a big old dance celebration, with kinetic routines breaking out at the drop of a cliche.
As the show bumps and grinds across the stage, it seems, above all, to have been created for those with short attention spans. Things never settle down long enough to allow for such silly little things as character development or dramatic tension.
You would think that with such a strong, recent example of how a need-to-dance movie can make a good stage musical -- see "Billy Elliot" -- someone might have wanted to give "Flashdance" a few layers thicker than the loose sweatshirt the lead character wears.
The flimsy premise of this tale could use some filling out and suspense -- anything to pump up the journey made by Alex, the mill worker with the hankering for ballet lessons.
"Flashdance," with a book by Tom Hedley and Robert Cary, is content to stay on the same superficial level of the original source material.
This would have been a good time to try out some fresh dialogue, for a start.
And lyrics? Oh, my. Alfred Tennyson must be chuckling in his grave at this howler: "It's better to leap and fall than never leap at all." (Robert Roth wrote the music and shares credit for the lyrics with Robert Cary.)
I wonder if a campier course might have been more fun, given how brilliant, in its own crazy way, the stage adaptation of another dance-filled movie, "Xanadu," turned out. Oh well.
"Flashdance," expertly directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, may rely too much on nostalgia. The expected scenes from the film are recreated, though in a curiously dutiful fashion.
When the lithe and spirited Emily Padgett, who stars as Alex, removes a bra without lifting her sweat shirt, or gyrates while being doused with water, just like Jennifer Beals did in the film, it feels like she is merely following a to-do list.
There's nothing remotely sexy about that bra business -- Matthew Hydzik, as Alex's boss-turned-boyfriend, Nick, looks like he's watching the nightly news.
And the water number, used to bring down the Act 1 curtain, certainly looks fabulous (Klara Zieglerova's scenic design and Howell Binkley's lighting deliver plenty of sizzle throughout the production), but the whole thing is over in a splash. It feels tacked on, just a sop to the fans of the movie.
Superficiality does have its place in the theater world, of course, and there's a certain guilty-pleasure element about this glossy vehicle, which tries so hard to entertain. (I still wouldn't count too heavily on the show's success if it ever makes it to Broadway -- the Baltimore visit is part of a pre-New York national tour.)
In addition to the fluent stagecraft, the level of performing is high. Padgett manages to look fresh at the end of the two and a half hour musical, despite one frenetic dance after another (the choreography devised for her could use a bit more of the aesthetic and bit less of the athletic). She sings sturdily as well. If she can't quite give Alex depth, she manages to give her some personality.
Hydzik glides smoothly through the role of Nick and, especially in the calmer numbers, proves to be a confident, stylish singer. He's especially effective blending with Padgett in "Here and Now," one of the more appealing songs in the score.
Not content to focus on one character's journey toward artistic fulfillment, the show spends a little too much time with others. There's Alex's dancing buddy Gloria (a perky Kelly Felthous), who ends up in a sleazy club. And Gloria's boyfriend, Jimmy (David R. Gordon), whose boy-meets-dream, boy-loses-dream, boy-gets-song progression proves only mildly diverting.
JoAnn Cunningham, as Alex's wise old muse, Hannah, makes a valiant effort to give the character some depth, but she isn't helped by the writers.
Supporting players make a considerable effort to spice things up. The ensemble of dancers/singers moves through its paces in polished form. But they would be better served by a few really grand production numbers, rather than an assortment of brief routines that often don't have enough time to get off the ground.
On the plus side, "Flashdance" does deliver in the closing moments, when Alex finally gets her audition for the stuffy academy and the strains of "What a Felling" start to fill the house. There really is bit of a thrill at that point, but it's just a little late.
The production runs through Sunday.
Photo by Kyle Froman
The playwright's vision conjures a world where North and South America have fused into a strange melange where languages and longings converge, or collide. The crudely hedonistic society that results comes with a violent undercurrent that some vague authoritarian power is ready to smash or exploit.
Amid the grime and slime of this cruel tomorrow, the old human impulse toward love and union can still break through, bringing with it the faintest tint of hope.
The intriguing, if not entirely persuasive, work has a little "A Clockwork Orange" in it, though with a Latin beat instead of Beethoven -- a DJ spinning tracks, and official government lines, provides a connective soundtrack.
The staging, directed by Nathan A. Cooper, also suggests a touch of the vintage "Batman" TV series in the stylized fight scene early on (there's even a baseball cap emblazoned with word "pow" on the brim).
With her Cuban, Spanish, Argentine and Croatian background, Svich obviously brings a keen perspective to issues of assimilation and alienation. "The Tropic of X" is all about identity -- national, social, economic, and, most provocatively, sexual (gender-bending plays a major role here) -- and how the things that define us can get pretty slippery.
What Svich doesn't do is ...
There isn't that much spark or surprise in the surreal world being imagined here; with allusions to video arcades and the use of a Nerf gun, it has an odd retro quality.
The dialogue could also use more vibrancy ("Peel my grape" doesn't seem like the most sexually suggestive line kids of the future would be using). When the play takes its darkest, most surreal turn, the language remains stubbornly flat.
That said, the Carrots plunge into the material with their usual, wholehearted commitment, which helps lift even the less effective stretches.
As two deadbeats who flit from video games to mugging tourists, when they are not thinking sex and drugs, Genevieve de Mahy (Maura) and Nathan Fulton (Mori) do vibrant work.
They both could use a wider range of physical gestures to convey youthful bravado, but they bring out the nervousness underneath the characters' attitude and make it possible to sense the tenuous bond of affection between them.
Fulton is especially strong when, having fallen afoul of the law and forced to undergo the ultimate transformative therapy, he repeats the mantra he has been taught: "I want to forget. I want to cry. I want to dream ..."
As Kiki, the transgender hooker and drug dealer resigned to the pervasive obscenity of this grave new world, Jessica Garrett struts confidently and conveys an inner vulnerability. Paul Diem moves easily from seemingly innocent guy to scary guy. And Aldo Pantoja, gyrating in his perch above the stage, handles the DJ role with flair.
A committee of costumers devised the slightly offbeat outfits, and Lisi Stoessel designed the compact, graffiti-flecked set (sensitively lit by Lana Riggins).
The performance area has been configured to approximate the intimacy of the company's former North Avenue location. Single Carrot will eventually move to a new venue taking shape in Remington, but the old Everyman space on Charles Street makes a great home for the time being.
"Tropic of X" runs through March 3.
PHOTO BY BRITT OLSEN-ECKER
With the season finale of "Downton Abbey" approaching on Sunday, I couldn't resist devoting one more Midweek Madness entry to the show -- the perfect addition to your paper doll collection:
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."