Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dybbuk and Houston Grand Opera

Charlene Baldridge Photo by Ken Howard
To all, a report from beyond
an odd mix of personal news and reviews

I just returned from chilly, wet Houston to chilly San Diego, making me wish I were still in Tampa, as I was several weeks ago.  All my travels lately have had to do with the music of Jake Heggie. Ah, the life of an 82-year-old groupie. What can I say? Jake and I met in 2000 just prior to the opening of his opera Dead Man Walking, and I’ve been a devotee of the man and his music ever since. Any reviewing of his work is marked by my high regard. 

The earlier Tampa trip was to hear three performances of the orchestral work Jake set on my late daughter Laura Morefield’s long poem, “The Work at Hand.” Two performances of this work (which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 2015) have just been announced by the Mainly Mozart Festival, this year titled Finding His Voice: Beauty Through Adversity. Artistic director is Michael Francis, who conducted the premiere of the orchestral version by Pittsburgh Symphony and also the recent performances with his orchestra, The Florida Orchestra.

Andrew Shulman 

Deborah Nansteel

Performed in the chamber music version for mezzo soprano, cellist and piano, “The Work at Hand” will open the Mainly Mozart Festival June 2 and 3 at Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club and the auditorium of TSRI respectively. Mezzo soprano Deborah Nansteel, cellist Andrew Shulman and pianist Anna Polonsky will perform the work.

I am beyond happy about this development, and just as soon as my Houston to San Diego flight landed Sunday afternoon (December 4), I took Lyft to a Mainly Mozart Club Amadeus social event that presented recitalist Shulman, the cellist who will play "The Work at Hand" in June. He played two of Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello.

Charlene at brunch the day following the opening
In Houston December 1-4

My trip to Houston, where I stayed at the Lancaster, a magnificent boutique hotel, was to attend the opening of Heggie’s newest opera, It’s a Wonderful Life. There I met my friends Nancy Meacham, her sister Mary Kay, and Sara, Mary Kay’s daughter. These women are Jake groupies too, all part of the wonderful life with which I have been blessed.-
Sara, Mary Kay and Nancy with mezzo soprano Talise Trevigne,
who portrays Clara, the angel who saves George Bailey

Just Before Leaving, 
an unusual wedding reception

Wednesday, Nov. 30 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, somewhere in the maze of the draperies that conceal ongoing renovation of the public areas, the inveterate theatregoer discovered a wedding reception for a couple named Hannah and Sam. The bridegroom had yet to appear, the bride was babbling incoherently, and a man who identified himself as Uncle Jerry had taken possession of the microphone by way of offering a toast, perhaps as a stalling device.

Add to this little paper plates with partially eaten wedding cake and a poured libation (sparkling apple juice) for those lucky enough to be at tables in front of the bandstand, which held a bewildered trio of fiddle, accordion and bass, who played an odd mix of Yiddish music, show tunes (heavy on Fiddler) and Christmas carols.

It was all part of The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding, writer and director Todd Salovey’s attempt to make sense of a baffling, age-old legend told in S. Ansky’s play. Salovey’s written a one man tour de force for actor/clown Ron Campbell (R. Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe), who plays all the wedding guests as well as the Dybbuk that has taken possession of the bride. Campbell is abetted by composer/ethnographer Yale Strom on fiddle, Mark Danisovsky on accordion, and Tim McNally on bass.

A Dybbuk is a super powerful spirit of a dead person who must take possession of another soul, or forever roam. The only way a Dybbuk in residence can be exorcised is by a super powerful rabbi, known as a rebbe. Fortunately, Campbell has a rebbe up his sleeve and thus the bride and her wedding to Sam are rescued, but not before the complicated and legendary folktale is explicated. Or not.

Ron Campbell as Uncle Jerry at al

It seems the bride’s and the Dybbuk’s parents were devoted, newlywed friends who promised that if one couple gave birth to a boy child and the other to a girl, then their children would be married from infancy. Something goes wrong, the boy dies…am I spoiling the story for you?  Really, it doesn’t matter. You get the idea.

I almost said “The casting is splendid,” as indeed it is, even though “they” at times seemed on opening night to be laboring a bit. Other credits: scenic design by Giulio Perrone, lighting by Sherrice Mogani, costumes by Anastasia Pautova, and sound and projection design byJoe Huppert.

The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding continues through December 18 at the Lyceum Space, San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. www.sdrep.org 619-544-1000

It's a Wonderful Life

Creating an opera based on a film classic is a formidable job (no matter what you do, no one will be completely
happy), so when composer Jake Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer were commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco  Opera and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music to do It’s a Wonderful Life, they took extraordinary measures visually and dramaturgically to make sure it was not a regurgitation of George Bailey’s “wasted” life in fictional Bedford Falls.

They enlisted trusted colleagues – conductor Patrick Summers, director Leonard Foglia, scenic designer Robert Brill, projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, lighting designer Brian Nason, and choreographer Keturah Stickann – plus costume designer David C. Woolard, and sound designer Andrew Harper – and strode off into territory that was far from the expected.

D’Ana Lombard, Winged Angel, First Class; Yongzhao Yu, Winged Angel, First Class; 
Talise Trevigne, Clara; William Burden, George Bailey; Zoie Reams, Winged Angel, First Class; 
Ben Edquist, Winged Angel, First Class Photo by Karen Almond
Photo by Karen Almond

In advance we knew that Clarence, the angel in the story that is sent to rescue George Bailey from suicide, would be female. Clara is sung/acted by Talise Trevigne, who created the role of Pip, the cabin boy, in Heggie’s Moby-Dick.  The role he has written for her is wondrous, taking advantage of her high voice and her sense of humor. While the other four Winged Angels, First Class (D'Ana Lombard, Zoie Reams,Yongzhao Yu and Federico De Michelis), are able to fly (they are marvelously endowed with enormous feathers) Clara has spent 200 years on a trapeze, waiting for her chance to be worthy. 

When prayers for Bailey (stupendous, effective tenor William Burden) start coming through to her she is selected to save him, but first must learn his life and motivations. To do this she must descend to earth and open a series of doors, each representing a day in his life. The unfolding of the familiar tale thus begins.

The opera beautifully cast and orchestrated, with plenty of ensembles and impressive singers, such as Rod Gilfrey, who portrays both the druggist, Mr. Gower, and the avaricious Mr. Potter, who owns most of Bedford Falls. Joshua Hopkins is terrific as Harry Bailey, George’s brother; tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (San Diego Opera’s Of Mice and Men), a marvelous actor, is well heard and exceptionally endearing as Uncle Billy; and soprano Andrea Carroll displays appealing vocalism as Mary Hatch, George’s beloved. The Bailey children are played by some terrific children, Levi Smith, C.J. Friend and Elle Grace Graper, who speak and cavort but do not sing.

To depart so radically from the reality of representation many operagoers expect is truly brave and bold. Whether Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life becomes the opera world’s much needed Nutcracker, as San Francisco Classical Voice suggests, remains to be seen. San Francisco Opera will present the West Coast premiere in the 2018 season. Next fall it will be produced at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Happy holidays, everyone. See you next week.


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