• The Crucible at Piedmont Opera and The Fletcher

    Our brand new (as of today) partners Piedmont Opera and the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts joint-produced Robert Ward's superb Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Crucible.

    It is fitting that Opera Lively publishes today a review, day one of this partnership. We had already been working in close collaboration with these two organizations without being officially called partners, therefore we have already published some information about the production, [here] with a comprehensive article about the opera and the composer's life and other works, and [here] with a delightful interview with the composer. This production was meant to celebrate still living (at 94 years of age!) Robert Ward, who was for several years the Chancellor of the UNCSA.

    The artists got input from Mr. Ward himself (who is still very sharp in his mind - isn't it a luxury in the field of opera to count on a live composer to express his opinion on how to stage his work?), and invited him to the opening night, after throwing a gala diner in his honor. Mr. Ward when he spoke with Opera Lively a few weeks ago was very pleased with this initiative.

    After attending the second performance of the run, Opera Lively agrees with the charming composer, because the production did justice to his work, and was quite spectacular. Our review follows.

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    The Crucible
    , American Contemporary Opera sung in English, music by Robert Ward, Libretto by Bernard Stambler, based on the play of the same title by Arthur Miller
    Premiered on 26 October 1961 at the New York City Opera
    Produced in Piedmont Opera's 34th season, in collaboration with the AJ Fletcher Opera Institute of the UNCSA
    March 16, 18, and 20, 2012
    Winston-Salem Symphony, conducted by James Allbritten
    Stage Director, Cynthia Stokes
    Scenery by Michael Schweikardt
    Lighting by Norman Coates
    Wig and Make-Up by Cindy Ludwig
    Costumes by Kathryn R. Grillo
    Stage Manager, Lisa Kelly

    The Cast, in order of appearance:

    Tituba, Nicole Mitchell
    Reverend Samuel Parris, Jonathan Sidden
    Betty Parris, Stephanie Norman
    Abigail Williams, Kristen Schwecke
    Thomas Putnam, Ted Federle
    Ann Putnam, Amanda Moody
    Rebecca Nurse, Mary Seibert
    Francis Nurse, Chris Ervin
    Giles Corey, Marvin Kehler
    John Proctor, Phillip Zawisza
    Reverend John Hale, Richard Ollarsaba
    Elizabeth Proctor, Janine Hawley
    Mary Warren, Kate Farrer
    Ezekiel Cheever, Jonathan Johnson
    Judge Danforth, Todd Geer
    Ruth Putnam, Catherine Park
    Susanna Walcott, Lindsey Allen
    Martha Sheldon, Rebecca Blank
    Mercy Lewis, Jemeesa Yarborough
    Bridget Booth, Ashley Mann
    Sarah Good, Marilyn Taylor

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    Almaviva's first person account:

    It's 10:15 AM in Charlotte, NC, when I open my eyes. Darn, I missed breakfast! It was from 7 to 10 AM, and free to boot, in my Executive Floor at the Charlotte Hilton. Oh well, I love my eggs and bacon on a Sunday morning, but I went to bed at 5 AM after finishing up the review of our other partners Opera Carolina's Eugene Onegin, published [here]. So I slept in.

    Now, I say to myself, 'Alma, you need to rush, get ready, and get on the road for the next show.' Such is the life of an itinerant opera journalist (laughs).

    How do I shift gears? My mind is still full or Romantic Russian opera, and I'm still savoring Maestro James Meena's great support and attention to Opera Lively, and the after-opera reception mingling with the cast. I still remember Dina Kuznetsova and her lovely family - very cute 7-year-old-son, nice husband (her biggest fan) and her proud parents. Dina is so enthusiastic about opera! Not to forget Yeghishe Manucharyan's friendly bear hug backstage as a thank-you for Opera Lively's very successful interviews with the cast (1,500 page views), and Victoria Livengood's larger-than-life bubbly personality - is there a more appropriate name?

    And oh God, how beautiful and lovely Ms. Dawn Pierce is! She reminds me that her friend Janine Hawley is performing in The Crucible; Dawn used to babysit for her when she was singing (I have the feeling that I'm starting to get into the small world of American opera performers).

    So, yes, Eugene Onegin was great - but hey, it's in the past. A few hours in the past, but in the past nevertheless. On to The Crucible.

    I get ready by 11:30 (still no breakfast!), check out from the hotel, set the GPS to the Stevens Center - the AJ Fletcher opera theater in Winston-Salem. I tune the car satellite radio to Met Opera; they are playing Così fan tutte. Nice. A good companion for the 90-minute ride (on my way back home at the end of the day, it was The Flying Dutchman).

    I drive by Childress Winery. Oh boy, I'd love to stop and eat at the Bistro restaurant, do some wine tasting. It's one of the top 10 Wine Enthusiast tasting rooms in America. But I look at the watch... no time. The Crucible awaits. Bummer.

    I get to Winston-Salem with plenty of time to attend the opera, but no time to eat. All right, as a prudent itinerant opera journalist, I have two protein bars. This should keep me going until I get home later tonight.

    I have some Opera Lively fliers. I talk to the lady at the Will Call window - will she pass them on please? Of course she will! I'm getting a second dose of the proverbial Southern hospitality - I was just as kindly treated for The Merry Wives of Windsor a few weeks back.

    OK, I get to my seat. I'm lost in thoughts. Will Maestro Allbritten accept Opera Lively as partners? I made a formal proposal at the Merry Wives but got no answer whatsoever. So, I'm a little distracted.

    I am reading through the playbill, trying to memorize the names and roles of the 22 characters and singers. Mr. Ward and Mr. Stambler, couldn't you trim your opera down a little? You're the nightmare of opera journalists! How am I supposed to retain all these people in my memory to write a review?

    The lights dim. Mr. Frank Dickerson, Executive Director, says a few words. 'Hey' - I think - 'that's the guy Maestro Allbritten needs to get on board to approve Opera Lively's partnership!' Then I think, 'will you quit already, Alma? Focus on the opera, my friend! You have a review to write!'

    Mr. Dickerson praises the Winston-Salem Symphony for playing in less than ideal conditions. That's when it hits me: yes, it's hot! Apparently the AC has malfunctioned. People fan themselves with the playbill. Some fan themselves with Opera Lively's flier. Good. We're getting through! At least we are good as a refreshing hand-fan, I hope we are good as partners as well!

    All right, let's get serious. The performance. No, it's not my bias because I'm pursuing these people as partners. I do want to conserve independent journalism. I'm prepared to bash the performance if it is no good. But oh boy. It is simply fabulous!

    The production aspects, as usual for Piedmont Opera and The Fletcher, are top notch. The scenarios are very realistic (traditional staging), the costumes and make-up are perfect, lighting is well done.

    Acoustics at the Stevens Center are phenomenal, thanks to the relatively small, intimate setting. By the way, even with its smallish size, the performance is far from selling out. A pity. I guess the audiences still crave the ABC (Aida, Carmen, Bohème) and don't show up in hordes for American contemporary opera, even in the city where Mr. Robert Ward lived and worked. Well, they don't know what they're missing. This one is wickedly good!

    But it's not all lost. I remember my conversation with a gentleman outside, while we waited for the doors to open. In a typical Southern accent, he was telling me how he loves opera, thanks to his European father who spoke five languages. But then, he feels very uncertain about this one. He asks me - "Have you seen it before?" "Yes I have," I say. He brightens up, and says, "Oh, so maybe you can tell me a little about it. You know, it's opera, I love opera, so I'm here, but I'm a little apprehensive. I'm not familiar with this kind of work. It's a drama, they say, right?" "Yes, a quite powerful one!" "Oh. But is the music melodious?" "Well, it's different, but I think you'll enjoy it, it's really beautiful, go with an open mind, get yourself into the story, and listen to the orchestra to see how it illustrates the action." "OK" he says, "but tell me, the story is about witches, are they supposed to be real witches in the opera?" "No" I say, "it's rather political. It's a pretense. They go into a witch-hunt, but the real reasons for it are greed and jealousy. It's a sort of allegory of the McCarthy years." "Oh wow, that's interesting" he says, and then his palls approach the building, he excuses himself.

    I bump into him during intermission. He is in love with it! He says, "Whoa, this is *really* good, I *really* like it!" 'OK,' I think, 'another convert to the notion that opera did not stop at Puccini's death.' I give him an Opera Lively flier. He reads it through, and says he is quite interested, will check it out. Great.

    Back to the opera.

    Stage direction: aren't these folks at Winston-Salem the best? The close collaboration with the UNCSA gives birth to some world-class directing. Dynamic use of the stage is simply phenomenal. There isn't a single prop out of place. There isn't a single actor movement that doesn't make sense. The shifts in crowd movement are smooth and precise. This all culminates with the *very best* staging of the Courtroom scene in the third act I've ever seen. Wow, this is something! The movements of the girls on stage while pretending to be possessed by the Devil are incredible. Organized and orchestrated chaos, highly effective. Bravo!

    Lighting - exquisite. The dark claustrophobic spaces are very well rendered, especially in the prison scene. The encounter between Proctor and Abigail in the woods is very atmospheric, and the final scene in a cold and harsh bluish light while the characters are walking to their deaths is beautifully done.

    Acting - couldn't be any better. This mix of seasoned professional performers, recent graduates from the Fletcher, and even current students, delivered some of the best dramatic acting I've seen in recent times. No one, really no one engaged in any under or over-acting. Just perfect.

    This is why - and for the second time in a Fletcher production after my Merry Wives experience - I got completely lost in the magic of live opera by the third act. Remember, I was lost in my thoughts, my plans for Opera Lively, and my critical appreciation of each singer/actor for the review. But then, these folks at the Fletcher/Piedmont Opera seem to have just a natural talent to engage the audience.

    I know this opera very well, I know the plot like the palm of my hand, I've listened to it repeatedly and I've seen it, I read books about it... I thought I'd just engage my analytical, critical self, but still, I was tense and on the edge of my seat, and completely absorbed by what was going on (almost forgot that I knew very well what was about to happen next), and by the third act I had completely forgotten what I was doing there. I was enjoying live opera, in an excellent performance of a great work.

    Musical values:

    Brave Winston-Salem Symphony performed by high heat; everybody was sweaty, but the sound was great. Even though I know this opera very well, I was still surprised at how incredibly *good* the music is. I felt grateful for having had the opportunity to meet the composer for a long talk... because I'm very in awe of Mr. Ward, with great admiration for his work. The more I listen to this, the more I think Mr. Ward was just perfect with his tone painting. Readers around the world: don't miss this. The Crucilbe is just a great opera!

    Conducting: Mr. Allbritten was excellent. No complaints here, everything moved along smoothly. It's something he must know very well, given his friendship with Mr. Ward. The match between orchestra and singers was phenomenal.

    Singing:

    Overall, very surprisingly good. Mr. Allbritten told me in his interview [here] that the quality of Piedmont Opera (given their close collaboration with a great group of operatic scholars at he UNCSA) attracts very talented people who just love to sing for them, even though they're a small company with a tight budget. Yes, I can see it. This cast was just spectacular.

    Big highlights:

    Kristen Schwecke as Abigail was astounding! I had seen this young singer as Mrs. Ford in the Merry Wives (see her interview [here]), and she said how she was delighted to be a lively and relaxed character for a change in that comic opera, since her dramatic soprano instrument makes her more suitable for much heavier roles playing some rather nasty characters. OK, now I've seen her singing what her fach is meant to sing. Oh my God, she is phenomenal. I talked to Maestro Allbritten backstage, and told him that I won't be surprised if we see this lady singing Wagner once her career develops some more. He entirely agreed. A name to keep in mind, folks. I believe she will explode after she is done with her studies. Her voice filled the house and dominated the stage. Simply spectacular! What a promising dramatic soprano!

    Jonathan Sidden as Reverend Parris was another outstanding singer, and another one who could fill the entire house with his powerful and well modulated voice, coupled with very convincing acting.

    Tituba, oh my! Ms. Nicole Mitchell is fantastic! Great acting, great delivery of Mr. Ward's exotic music for her, playing with the rhythms.

    Richard Ollarsaba as Reverend John Hale was another highlight of the evening (read his interview [here]). I had already loved him as Falstaff in the Merry Wives where he had great comic flair, but here he is entirely in his territory. He was born for dramatic roles, and was truly impressive.

    When we met backstage, he said when we remembered his Fasltaff: "this role of today is appropriate for me vocally, not to say that it's a better match, age-wise. I think I did a lot better today!" Maestro Allbritten had great praise for him, and already regreted the fact that Richard is graduating, and leaving after the end of this run, to get his spot in the Minnesota Opera young artist program. Readers, write down this name. Richard Ollarsaba. Dashing, handsome young man. Great voice. Great stage presence. We'll hear about him, sooner or later.



    Janine Hawley as Elizabeth Proctor, what an accomplished artist! She had a superb reading of the character. I've seen productions in which Elizabeth is depicted as a despondent and depressed desperate housewife. Not here. Ms. Hawley played her as nagging and steely, cold and harsh, until the partial transformation of the last scene when she can find in herself some truly human feelings. Great characterization, and perfect voice. She has promised an interview for Opera Lively in the next couple of days, so stay tuned. Backstage, she said that her character is very powerful, and she had an aura of pride and self-confidence, exhuding the conviction that it was a job well done.

    Dr. Marilyn Taylor as Sarah Good - interesting, the master educator is among her students, having fun. While Sarah Good's role is very small (nothing more than some moaning vocalises), it was particularly entertaining for me to meet Dr. Taylor backstage - the self-assured, elegant woman that I know, disguised as an old witch! Kudos to the Make-Up Department!

    Kate Ferrer as Marry Warren was very convincing in her acting, and sang the role well. Todd Geer's Judge Danforth was nice too.

    I don't feel as good about Philip Zawisza's John Proctor. Excellent in the first act; by the end of the second act he seemed fatigued and hoarse. Intermission saved him, since he came back for the third act doing better - but then, probably troubled by the strain he had to go through, he seemed to be restraining and pacing himself until the end. I wonder if he had an ailment of some sort, or was just too bold in first act and got his instrument a bit stressed out.

    Mary Seibert's Rebbecca Nurse was appropriately fragile and touching.

    Other supporting roles were more than adequate. This was a very good ensemble. Big standing ovation from the public. While one regrets that contemporary opera can't fill the seats, those who were there seemed totally convinced by this beautiful performance.

    Here are some pictures - probably not the greatest since focus is hard on a dark house in which flash photography is not allowed.

    The start of the courtroom scene (pity that I don't have a picture of the more dynamic action at the end of the scene):


    Bad focus and lighting, but you see on the left excellent Nicole Mitchell as Tituba, and elegant Dr. Taylor completely irrecognizable as Sarah Good:


    John Proctor and Abigail:


    The final scene:


    Curtain calls, Maestro Allbritten in the middle, Mr. Ollarsaba to his right, Ms. Schwecke and Mr. Zawisza to his left:


    After the end, I went backstage, shaking out of my fascination with live opera, and again worried about Opera Lively (pun intented). As usual, the staff at Piedmont Opera moved me through nicely - these regional opera people seem to be a lot friendlier than their counterparts in larger cities. No introductions or appointments needed, I just had to say, "I'd like to talk to maestro Allbritten backstage" and the nice lady immediately said, "sure, follow me."

    As I'm coming down the stairs, maestro Allbritten is coming up, all sweaty from the high temperature in the pit. He seems exhausted, but very happy (he knows how good this performance was). He opens a big smile when he sees me, and says, "Alma, entirely my fault, I have been so busy with these rehearsals, that's why I took my time to get back in touch with you, but yes, absolutely, we love what you guys at Opera Lively are doing, it's a go, we're partners!" (see the announcement [here])

    Dr. Taylor rushes through looking hilarious in her make-up; Richard Ollarsaba comes up and gives me a powerful handshake; I run into Mr. Steven Lacosse (the Piedmont Opera principal stage director) who says, "Alma, I've been reading a lot what you guys have been writing, Opera Lively is great, we love what you've been doing, I'll register as a member!"

    So that's it. A great weekend of live opera. This one, overall, A+ (no kidding - I'm *not* biased because these people are partnering with us; they *are* this good!). Yesterday, A- at Opera Carolina (that is, some rare flaws but very much world class). Plus, the Opera Competition in Charlotte was fun (review [here]).

    I'm astounded. I'm a relatively seasoned opera goer. I lived in Paris and New York City for decades, and I've attended opera in some of the best houses in the world. Now I'm in North Carollina, in the deep South. And I keep running into these extremely talented people, educational institutions, and opera companies. Wow. Opera is not only alive in New York City, Paris, London, Milan, Berlin, and the such. There is opera in North Carolina, folks. Pretty darn good world-class opera.

    And to top it all, Opera Lively got 163 simultaneous readers today. A new record. We're growing, and strongly so. It looks like we've been fulfilling our mission. Life is good.

    Mission accomplished, for now. Let me go to bed. My 'day job' waits for me tomorrow. In a couple of weeks, the Met, Carnegie Hall, and face-to-face interviews with Natalie Dessay, Piotr Beczala, and Matthew Polenzani. Did I mention that life is good?

    This article was originally published in forum thread: The Crucible at Piedmont Opera and The Fletcher started by Almaviva View original post
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      The ABC clutches are difficult to escape for some operagoers, but this kind of performances will help many of them to widen their views and the repertory they are familiar with.

      Nice to read it was that good!


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