Stewart Goodyear – an extraordinary pianist

Every time I hear Stewart Goodyear play I am reminded of what an extraordinary pianist he is. That just happened when I received a copy of his CD Phoenix from the enterprising label Bright Shiny Things.

Flawlesly engineered, mixed, and mastered by Daniel Shores, elegantly produced by Dan Mercurio and Louis Levitt, and nicely packaged and designed by Marian C. Holmes and Julia-Buz, the CD was recorded back in February of this year and just released. It features an intriguing selection of contemporary music by Jennifer Higdon, Anthony Davis, and Stewart Goodyear himself.

Accompanying the new music is Debussy’s La cathedrale engloutie and L’isle joyeuse, in addition to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

First things first: the music. Anthony Davis’ compelling Middle Passage forcefully depicts in dissonant and often violently dramatic music the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were transported to North America, the Caribbean, Central, and South America in subhuman conditions. It is harrowing music that tells a disturbing story and literally grabs the listener and won’t let go.

Goodyear gives Middle Passage an energetically played reading, as he does his own Caribbean-inflected Congotay, a joyous incorporation of Trinidadian Soca rhythms into a classically-grounded pianistic technique.

Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens takes its title and gives it musical meaning in music both mysterious and crystalline that avails itself of an expansive vocabulary of massive chords, glissandi, arpeggios, and subtle snippets of melody while avoiding a firmly central tonality.

As with Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, Stewart Goodyear capitalizes on the delicate aspects of Debussy’s quintessentially Gallic music: nobly serious in La cathedrale engloutie with those bottomless chords, and riotously happy in L’isle joyeuse.

The longest piece in Goodyear’s CD is Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. A suite made up of an introduction which comes back several times in between its ten episodes, the 1874 composition for piano by the 35 year old composer fares far better with this listener than the all-too-much Ravel arrangement for orchestra. Here, in its original form, Goodyear takes judicious tempi much closer to Mussorgsky’s originally intended ones, bringing out the clarity of the work and the humor inherent in many of the sardonically descriptive episodes: Bydio, Ballet of Un-hatched Chicks, The Hut on Hen’s Legs, and the majesty in The Old Castle and The Great Gate of Kiev.

Stewart Goodyear closes the CD with a work titled Panorama – a work so Cuban-sounding that even this Havana-born listener was fooled into thinking it was the music of my compatriots Alejandro Garcia-Caturla or that of Amadeo Roldan I was hearing.

Thank you for the memories and thank you for all the good music!

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

2021 – THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Soon we will be ready to bid farewell and good riddance to a difficult year, one during which the not so good more than often seemed to outweigh the worthwhile. It was also a year in which the resilience of the arts and the artists who create them filled us all with hope. Here then, in random order that avoids chronology is my list of highlights good and bad, happy and sad, of the year soon to be the year that was.

  • The fall of 2021 saw the return of live performances. It was a cautious one-step-at-a-time rebirth of concerts, operas, recitals and plays in front of live audiences. It soon came to be the “new normal”, one sometimes calling for proof of vaccination and the wearing of masks, as was the case at Music Hall and Memorial Hall in Cincinnati for concerts of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Matinee Musicale Cincinnati.
  • At the College-Conservatory of Music live performances returned, including a Marriage of Figaro where all the singers could be heard in spite of being masked. In that show, a young lyric soprano by the name of Emma Marhefka shone brightly as a great Susanna-in-the-making.  
  • There was an Opera D’Arte Magic Flute available digitally with a talented student cast that managed to synchronize their singing despite the singers and accompaniment being video-taped in separate locations.
  • There are no longer any printed programs at CCM, a measure that makes sense economically and helps to avoid contagion.
  • The Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra both moved outdoors in an effort to bring normality back to the performing arts in our city. The opera presented cut versions of Carmenand The Barber of Seville with no scenery, simplified staging, and no intermissions. The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra moved two concerts to Eden Park. In spite of mixed reviews from some naysayers. I tip my hat to both organizations for trying to keep artists employed and music lovers happy.
  • There were several people we said goodbye to, all connected in one way or another to the arts. Bass-baritone Tom Hammons left us even as the memory of his hilarious Majordomo in Ariadne auf Naxos with the Cincinnati Opera is still alive with those of us who saw him steal the show. Polk Laffoon, a patron of the arts and a good friend passed on while swimming near his family’s vacation home in Michigan. Tenor, Marco (Mark) Panuccio passed away, leaving behind a fine leacy of performances that highlighted a career in Opera and concerts. Farther afield the unanticipated death of Stephen Sondheim left a void with so many who in various ways were connected to his music and lyrics.
  • There were changes in Academia and in several arts organizations. Aubrey Berg who helmed the highly successful Musical Theatre program at CCM retired after thirty-two years on the job. So did fund-raising wizard Karen Tully. Two Opera notables were recruited by CCM: tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Elliott Madore
  • LeAnne Anklam and Ann Stewart both members of the management triumvirate that has successfully run the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra for several years resigned within weeks of each other.
  • The choice of artists and repertory from several arts organizations both nationally and locally has broadened in significantly positive ways. The Metropolitan Opera opened its current season with the first opera by a Black composer in its history: Fire Shut Up My Bones, Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same title.
  • In Cincinnati, both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Matinee Musicale have welcomed minority artists to their 2021-2022 seasons, which have also been enriched by the works of minority composers.
  • There were many live performances that live on in our collective memory, among them the Cincinnati debut of conductor Roderick Cox with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Conrad Tao’s playing of the Ravel Piano Concerto in the same program.
  • Starting a new season in its very own space – a flexible black box in which the audience sits just a few feet from the performers – Mutual Dance Theatre the recently renamed brain-child of artistic director Jeanne Mam-Luft brokered an artistic marriage of the Jefferson James Contemporary Dance Theatre and MamLuft&Co.Dance and brought back world class modern dance to Cincinnati.
  • Finally, the notorious MET Ring Cycle will be put to rest in some junk yard or other while a new one begins soon with a streamlined modern-dress Die Walküre that originated at the English National Opera eliciting both glowing and hate-filled reviews.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique sings Handel

JEANINE DE BIQUE, SOPRANO

Concerto Köln conducted by Luca Quintavalle

Berlin Classics

In Mirrors, a recent release by Berlin Classics the Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique, shares the spotlight in her first solo album with the recent news about her birthplace having attained full status of republic. Congratulations to both!

The Concerto Köln conducted by Luca Quintavalle excels, idiomatically supporting the soprano, who in turn shines vocally and dramatically in a dozen Baroque opera arias.

Ranging from the familiar Giulio Cesare showstoppers to rarities such as Rimembranza crudel from Germanicus, De Bique displays a superb command of the vocal technique needed to take on the demands on agility, blend of the registers, range, and sustaining power required to sing this repertory.

More importantly and not content with just singing the notes accurately, the immensely gifted Jeanine De Bique inflects the text of whatever she sings with interpretative incisiveness, fleshing out the characters whose words she brings to life: Cleopatra’s mix of enticing sexuality and vulnerability, Alcina’s manipulative streak, or Agrippina’s innate wickedness are all vividly there.

Beyond the tremendous technique and interpretative acumen present in her singing, De Bique’s luscious voice gleams throughout a two-octave plus range, always at the service of the music.

In a February of 2014 review of Jeanine De Bique’s Cincinnati debut in recital with Matinee Musicale Cincinnati I wrote: “The young Trinidadian soprano’s assertive vocalism and forceful presence left one thinking that she is no mere soubrette, but a great Lucia, Gilda, or Susanna in the making.

We are happy to report that barely eight years later our words have proven true.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS    

Christoph Prégardien’s Brahms

Naxos Classics has just released a nicely engineered Brahms: Complete Songs, Vol. 1, (8574268) which includes over two dozen songs from opus numbers 32, 43, 86 and 105.

At the age of 65, and after a long and distinguished career as a tenor who primarily specialized in concert and oratorio, Christoph Prégardien, now singing as a baritone, continues to cultivate the German Song repertory.

Choosing lower keys does not magically turn a tenor into a baritone, timbre above all else dictates the vocal classification of a singer, but the range of a song and, even more importantly, tessitura – the area in which the music lies – determines what the singer should be doing.

In the case of Prégardien, the lower keys chosen by him for Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Klage,  Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Klage, Auf dem Kirchhofe, Feldeinsamkeit, Auf dem Kirchhofe, and Wie bist du, meine Königin each and every one of these songs short in length and lyric in mood, serve him well, making few demands on endurance and instead calling for delicacy of utterance and sensitivity, both qualities hallmarks of the tenor’s singing.

Prégardien is equally impressive in the narrative songs, like Verrat, where he mines the words as only the past master he is, extracting every ounce of meaning from the dramatic tale.

We hope that Prégardien will continue to collaborate with Ulrich Eisenlohr, a very fine accompanying pianist. It is also hoped that will continue to provide song translations and program notes in the future.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

United Strings of Europe’s Renewal

Renewal (BIS-2549) is United Strings of Europe’s second release – soon to be out in January of 2022- is the first I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.     

The title of this BIS album by the London-based ensemble implies on one level that all but one of the works it includes are arranged by Julian Azkoul, first violinist and director of the group. But renewal can also be taken to mean a process of refreshing rediscovery, which this recording is.

In Winter’s House by Joanna Marsh and Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow are both originally choral works while Shaw’s Entr’acte, was written for string quartet, but is here heard in the composer’s own version for string orchestra.

Joanna Marsh’s In Winter’s House is set to mysterious, somewhat arcane, lyrical, modal-inflected, amply melodic music that often evokes sounds from centuries ago.

Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow and Entr’acte are both written in an enticingly melodic language that does not restrict the composer from occasional forays into spicy dissonance and minimalistic passages.

Mendelssohn’s F minor String Quartet, one of the composer’s final works, written in reaction to the unexpected death of his beloved sister Fanny, and three months before his own passing is here adapted for string orchestra and heard in an emotionally compelling performance that brings out the composer’s distraught response to the inevitability of death.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs, are also heard here for the first time with string orchestra accompaniment.

They are sung here by the wonderful soprano Ruby Hughes, an artist with an endless assortment of vocal colors and a flawlessly instrumental technique.

Night of the Flying Horses starts as an unaccompanied lullaby that soon develops into a Romani Doina that in turn builds into agitated music that depicts the flight of fantastical winged horses.

In Rosalia de Castro’s poem Lúa descolorida (Discolored Moon), written in the language of the Galician people, a desolate soul addresses the moon to haunting music by Golijov: If you know where Death has its dark dwelling, tell her to carry me body and soul as one to the place where no one will ever remember neither this world where I am nor the one above me.

How slow the wind a gentle poem by Emily Dickinson brings a felicitous closure to this incomparable, inky-dark song group.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

FROM JEWISH LIFE – MUSIC OF ERNEST BLOCH

YEVGENY DOKSHANSKY, CLARINET

RICHARD MASTERS, PIANO

HERITAGE RECORDS (HTGCD 158)

www.heritagerecords.com 

From Jewish Life, B. 54 (1924)

Two Pieces, B. 82 (1951)

Suite Hebraique, B. 83 (1951)

Suite, B. 41 (1919)

All works transcribed by Yevgeny Dokshansky

Engineered, recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered by Scott Hannenberg

Producer: Benjamin Wyatt

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), Swiss-born, naturalized American, fertile composer, scholarly academic and revered teacher, gifted amateur photographer, devoted family man, and fervently faithful Jew is the author of the music selected by Belorussian clarinetist Yevgeny Dokshansky for the album FROM JEWISH LIFE – MUSIC OF ERNEST BLOCH.

Dokshansky, a superb clarinetist has faithfully adapted Bloch’s From Jewish Life; Two Pieces, B. 82; Suite Hebraique; and his Suite, B. 41 to be played on his clarinet with idiomatic success. Bloch’s music in this album ranges from mid-career works dating back to 1919 to fully mature works composed while the composer was in his sixties.

Throughout all four of these compositions one can hear the composer’s fascination with Ashkenazy music both sacred and secular, some clearly modal in its use of exotic scales, some flirting with atonality, some lyrical, some intensely dramatic, all of it uniquely original and compelling.

In collaboration with his pianist, the formidable Richard Masters, Dokshansky summons dulcet sounds from his sympathetic instrument, both artists quickly convincing the listener that this is the best way that this music should be played.

Scott Hannenberg has engineered Benjamin Wyatt’s elegantly produced album with amplitude and clarity.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Two Sensational Debuts with the CSO: Conductor Roderick Cox and Pianist Conrad Tao

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Music Hall

Cincinnati. Ohio

November 26, 2021, 8:00 PM

Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3, Scottish

Roderick Cox, conductor
Conrad Tao, piano

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune  (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) was composed and first performed in Paris in 1894, inspired by a poem of Stéphane Mallarmé that describes the amorous adventures of a mythological creature: a half-human/half-goat faun.

Neither a prelude nor a tone poem, as it has been erroneously described, but a stand-alone work originally intended to be quite a bit longer than in its present form, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun signaled in this performance the impressive Cincinnati debut of conductor Roderick Cox.

Mallarmé at first was discontent with a poem of his being turned into a musical composition, but upon hearing it, he wrote to Debussy expressing his enthusiastic approval. Once Debussy had completed this succinct and evocative composition he felt that it contained all the music it needed. At first the work proved too modern for the ears of the recalcitrant 1894 Paris public, although eventually it became a keystone of 20th century music.

Randolph Bowman flawlessly played the famous flute solo that begins the work and sets the mood for what’s to follow, gradually sharing the moment with Gillian Benet Sella’s harp, Dwight Parry’s oboe, and Christopher Pell’s clarinet.

Brief in length like the Debussy work that preceded it by almost four decades, Ravel’s 1932 Piano Concerto in G Major is, in the words of its composer “…a genuine concerto… a brilliant work… without seeking to show profundity…” Ravel chose to incorporate into his Piano Concerto in G Major a handful of jazzy instrumental tricks of the trade, among them wah-wah effects shared by several of the brass players.

In addition to these sometimes sardonic, sometimes just plain funny moments, several Basque folk songs from the composer’s mother’s birthplace give the work a lyrical yet earthy tone that in the second movement of this performance engaged the extraordinary Christopher Philpotts on English horn with Conrad Tao at the piano in a haunting dialogue.

In point of fact, profundity or not, Ravel’s G major concerto is indeed a genuine and brilliant creation, from its initial whip crack to its elegiac second movement, to its riotous finale – all three movements a pianistic minefield to most keyboard artists, though not to the chameleonic Conrad Tao who took on Ravel’s work and brought out with sheer audacity all of its aspects: the lyrical, the zany, the mind-bending technical hurdles in a performance that brought the audience to its feet.  

Tao returned for several bows, the last one microphone in hand. Once settled down he shared with the audience the sad news of the passing of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, himself an admirer of Maurice Ravel. Tao then movingly played Sunday, from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George

Amazingly it took Ravel over twenty-five years to finally put pen to paper and bring this work from idea to life on a concert stage. It took Mendelssohn less than Ravel, but still over twelve years to finish his Symphony No. 3 due to the composer’s other commitments. Once he had finished this composition in 1842, he revealed to those close to him as the source of his inspiration a visit to the roofless, ruined, decaying chapel of Holyrood Palace on a trip to Scotland which also inspired the composer’s Hebrides Overture.

On listening to this music there is something particularly Scottish about it, especially in the second movement that uses the dotted rhythms of a dance. But beyond the musical characteristics of the work, there are the broadly Romantic, stormy, alternatively lyrical and dramatic emotions which inspired it. It would not be far-fetched to describe them as quintessentially Scottish characteristics of the inhabitants of the northernmost regions of the British Isles.

In his auspicious debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Roderick Cox arrived largely unknown to a Cincinnati audience still in the midst of pandemic restrictions. Within a few moments after the start of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun it was clear to many of us that we were in the presence of a major talent: a young but fully matured maestro with the lightness of touch to bring out the delicacy and the myriad colors of the Debussy work.

As he moved into the ever changing Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major we became even more impressed by the precision with which Cox balanced attention to the soloist and keeping a firm hand leading the orchestra through the now percussive, now rhapsodic score.

In the second half of the program Cox mastered the subtle balance in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, Scottish, a work in which the tempestuous eventually gives way to a calming peace that was then interrupted by a rapturous ovation accorded the maestro.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

ALBERT CANO SMIT, PIANO

MATINEE MUSICALE CINCINNATI

NOVEMBER 21, 2021, 3:00 PM

MEMORIAL HALL CINCINNATI, OHIO

ALBERT CANO SMIT, PIANO

The young, gifted, and promising pianist Albert Cano Smit opened his recital for Matinee Musicale Cincinnati before an intimate group of music devotees with Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a work that the German composer considered his best creation for the keyboard.

The young Schumann was 28 when he penned this complex work, and he could not have found a better fictional soul mate than the half-mad, or maybe just plain eccentric Kapellmeister Kreisler from one of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s inky-dark tales.

Kreisler, a mad musical genius plagued by extreme neurotic vulnerability was not that far removed from the composer’s budding Florestan/Eusebius split personality. In Kreisleriana this duality is given musical life in a work in which nearly each one of the movements is characterized by sudden, even blunt changes from the hauntingly lyrical to the jaggedly dramatic.

What an interesting coincidence that the English Suite No. 1 by J. S. Bach dates to the year 1723, when the composer was 28 years old, just as young Schumann was when in 1838 he composed Kreisleriana, over a century later!

While much, even if not all of the emphasis Schumann put into his work is one of youthful impetuousness and virtuosic speed, with many of the sections marked fast, faster, and fastest, Bach’s creation – brought to life at the same age as Schumann’s – is by contrast all mature serenity and stately moderation throughout its ten sections, even those characterized by lively dance tempi.

Cano Smit’s playing of the Bach opus following Schumann’s provided a peaceful respite after the Romantic turmoil of the Kreisleriana.

Elsewhere in the program an elegant Polonaise by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach signaled a move away from strict Baroque formality and towards the beginnings of a Classicism with roots in Nationalistic music.

At the end of the enormously varied program Albert Cano Smit surprised the listeners with an unusual choice: three Danzas Argentinas by the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, yet another youthful work (opus 2) written by an immensely promising composer aged 27 (another near coincidence) and one with a proclivity for spicy dissonances and immensely challenging technical hurdles for the pianist.

The group of three folk-inspired dances encompasses a chacarera titled Danza del viejo boyero (“Dance of the Old Herdsman”), an intriguingly poly-tonal piece in which the left hand does curlicues on the black keys while the right hand remains busy on the whites.

The gorgeously melancholy Danza de la moza donosa (“Dance of the Donosa Girl”) followed, reminding one of how Ginastera, when he put his mind to it, could spin a haunting melody.

The for-men-only Danza del gaucho matrero (“Dance of the Outlaw Cowboy”), a raucous malambo, gave the recital a wildly energetic ending.

Cano Smit impressed with his technical ability, although at times one hoped for a gentler approach to some of the music. Perhaps with growing maturity this energetic young artist will find a way to settle into easier tempi when needed and a wider range of dynamics, both of which would allow the music he plays more breathing room, and most importantly, for the audience, a deeper emotional connection to it.

One caveat for our Matinee Musicale Cincinnati friends: you need to provide program notes. Having a “q and a” session with the artist(s) after the fact is no substitute for a little introduction to the music being played in your programs.

Matinee Musicale Cincinnati’s next recital will feature the lovely soprano Nicole Cabell on Sunday January 30, 2022 at 3 PM in a program that will include songs by Maurice Ravel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Maurice Delage, and Fernando Obradors, with Donna Loewy at the piano.

Further information: www.matineemusicalecincinnati.org

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Mutual Dance Theatre

Mutual Dance Theatre

Pulp

Variations in a Brainstorm

November 19th, 2021 at 8pm

Mutual Arts Center

Cincinnati, OH 45216

The Company:

Jeanne Mam-Luft, Artistic and Executive Director and Poducer

Steven P. Evans, Company Director

Rowan Salem, Choreographer for Pulp

Hannah Williamson, Choreographer for Variations in a Brainstorm

Claire Dieringer, Kirsten Edwards, Anna Hart, Stevie Lamblin, Caroline Nymberg, Emma Raney, Courtney Ziegelmeyer

Lighting Design: Larry Csernik

Starting a new season in their very own space – a flexible black box in which the audience sits just a few feet from the performers, Mutual Dance Theatre (an artistic marriage of the Jefferson James Contemporary Dance Theatre and MamLuft&Co.Dance) is the recently renamed brain-child of artistic director Jeanne Mam-Luft.

The company has just premiered two works: Pulpand Variations in a Brainstorm.

In Pulp, the audience surrounds six female performers in the intimate Mutual Arts Center’s black box studio. The dancers, dressed in loose-fitting blue dance gear first begin by getting the audience to help to choose a unique sequence of events that will never again be performed in that same order. They do so by taking numbers 1 through 11 out of a box.

The six dancers then proceed to move through a series of sequences involving mostly free-flowing modern dance vocabulary with an occasional balletic move. They have for props several baskets with oranges that become throughout Pulp their only props.

In Variations in a Brainstorm, sheets of paper containing writings of different kinds and a writing desk with a lamp help provide the audience with some clues about the various emotional states of the six dancers. This time they are casually clad in beiges and blacks, as if ready for a rehearsal.

I had not had an opportunity to catch a performance of these two new works by this amazing dance company until this Friday, November 19th, 2021 at 8pm. But that is not to say that I had never seen them before, because I actually did see and grew to admire their cutting edge work over the past several years, every time becoming more of a fan of theirs.

If you try to ascribe a narrative meaning to this most American of dance forms you are barking up the wrong kinetic tree, for Modern Dance is a close relative of performance art, where the unspoken and the poetic suffice unto themselves with no need for us to ask what it all means.

The juxtaposing of apparently contradictory elements in these two intriguing works – a stream of consciousness spoken narrative in Variations in a Brainstorm, the mixing up of Schubert with Baroque music with Country, with Freddy Quinn, and with you name it in Pulp serves to underpin the fact that in this kind of theatrical dancing the medium, as Marshall McLuhan said, is the message.

I encourage you to see Mutual Dance Theatre in action. There is one final performance of Pulp and Variations in a Brainstorm on Saturday, November 20th, 2021 at 8pm. If you are not able to see Mutual Dance Theatre this week then make sure to visit their website. There you will get a glimpse of what the company has in store for Modern Dance fans – and that’s not just their own work.

As presenters they will bring to Cincinnati two noted dance ensembles: PHILADANCO (1/21& 22/22), and SIDRA BELL DANCE NEW YORK (3-25&26-22). The company offers several subscription deals starting at the ridiculously low price of $17.

Most of their performances are at Mutual Arts Center Hartwell, 8222 Monon Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45216. Some will be at the Aronoff’s smaller of their two theatres.

Information at www.mutualdance.org  

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

The Marriage of Figaro at CCM

Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), a comic opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte, based on the 1784 comedy La folle journee, ou le Mariage de Figaro by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais.

Thursday November 18, 2021 at the College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Director: Robin Guarino

Conductor: Brian McCann

Scenic Design: Tom Umfrid

Costume Design: Meredith Buckley

Cast:


John Siarris – Figaro

Emma Marhefka – Susanna

Ryan Wolfe – Count

Heidi Miller – Countess

Georgia Jacobson – Cherubino

Kendra Beasley – Marcellina

Atticus Rego – Bartolo

Arieh Sacke – Basilio/Curzio

Su Hyeon Park – Barbarina

Erik Nordstrom – Antonio

Beaumarchais’s play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro was at first banned in Vienna because of its subject matter, but Mozart managed to get official approval for his operatic version, which was given by the Emperor, Joseph II, before any music was written for it. And that was Vienna, mind you, in Paris that subject matter would have earned the creators a few years of forced labor.

The opera premiered in Vienna on May 1, 1786, with Mozart conducting. The production received eight more performances, which, for the time, was a nice long run. The Emperor was concerned by the length of the performance, and directed his aides to “…prevent the excessive duration of operas…that no piece be repeated…therefore cause some posters to this effect to be printed.”

In a brilliant bit of marketing, Mozart and Da Ponte posted a reply to the Emperor’s edict: “… the opera will not be one of the shortest to have appeared on our stage…in our desire to offer as it were a new kind of spectacle to a public of so refined a taste and understanding.” Well, Mozart and Da Ponte were right: it is not one of the shortest ever, clocking in at well over three hours even with the cutting of a couple of Act IV arias. The opera was then produced in Prague in December 1786. Uncut.

The plot deals with the impending marriage of Figaro (John Siarris) and Susanna (Emma Marhefka) and the efforts made by Count Almaviva (Ryan Wolfe) to thwart their wedding until his Excellency has exercised the ancient Droit du Seigneur, a prerogative of a master to bed any female servant of his choosing before her wedding night.

As regards beds, the philandering Count has been notably absent from that of his wife, Countess Almaviva (Heidi Miller), while the flirtatious page boy Cherubino (Georgia Jacobson) yearns to occupy his master’s place next to the Countess, but eventually settles for the much closer to his age Barbarina (Su Hyeon Park), the niece of the perpetually inebriated Antonio, the castle’s gardener (the very funny Erik Nordstrom). Then there is the older couple of Dr. Bartolo (Atticus Rego) and Marcellina (Kendra Beasley) who turn out to be more closely related to Figaro than anyone could have imagined.

At the end of the final act in which mistaken identities under the cover of night threaten to wreck the day’s festivities, the Count meets his comeuppance and the ten reconciled principal characters sing:

“All of us will be happy now that this day filled with torments and willful madness ends with love, contentment and joy. Spouses and friends: let us go to the ball and play and set fireworks and run to celebrate to the tune of a joyful march!”

The charming CCM production is blessed with imaginative stage direction by Robin Guarino, an elegantly chameleonic set by Tom Umfrid, pretty costumes by CCM design student Meredith Buckley, and the conducting of the gifted young student Brian McCann – a last minute replacement to lead the very nice student orchestra.

And then, of course, there is the cast of ten principals each filled with immense promise as singing actors, among whom the young lyric soprano Emma Marhefka shines both vocally and dramatically in the central role of Susanna, a part which Mozart conceived for the English soprano Nancy Storace as the heart and soul of the opera, which here Ms. Marhefka is hands down.

There are three more performances this weekend.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS