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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    The Flying Dutchman at Piedmont Opera

    The Flying Dutchman (Jan 2, 1843, Dresden)
    Music and libretto by Richard Wagner

    New co-production by Piedmont Opera and The Princeton Festival
    Sung in German, with English subtitles

    October 25, 27, and 29, 2013 (this review is of the last performance)

    The Winston-Salem Symphony, conducted by James Allbritten
    Stage Director - Steve LaCosse
    Scenic Designer - Mark Pirolo
    Lighting Designer - Norman Coates
    Projection Designer - David Palmer
    Scenery Coordinator - Dennis Gill Booth
    Costumes Coordinator - Ann M. Bruskiewitz
    Wig and Make-Up Designer - Martha Ruskai
    Props Mistress - Kristina Stevenson

    Cast, in order of appearance

    Daland - Brian Banion
    Daland's steersman - Jonathan Johnson
    The Dutchman - Jake Gardner
    Mary - Kate Farrar
    Senta - Carter Scott
    Erik - Jason Wickson

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    I'm blown away. Shocked. Dear readers, please understand the order of magnitude of my surprise. Imagine that one day you decide to attend a new production of a Wagner opera (no less), by a small regional company with a category IV budget according to the Opera America classification, in a city of 230,000 inhabitants located in a Southern state, miles away from any major metropolitan area. The orchestra, the conductor, most of the crew, and the stage director are all local, and so are some members of the cast, which even includes two graduate students in one of the local universities. Add to this the fact that no Wagner opera was ever given in that region of the state; it's a first for them. Say, you're used to attending the shows of America's Category I companies (the Met, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Houston, etc.), as well as the major European houses such as Covent Garden and La Scala, featuring some of the leading conductors, prestigious stage directors, and famous singers of this world. Say, the last two live Wagner operas you've attended were just two or three months ago - one, directed by Francesca Zambello at Glimmerglass, and the other one, conducted by Fabio Luisi at the Met with an international cast of opera luminaries.

    So, in these circumstances (and they do happen to be my real circumstances), what would you expect from the small regional company? At best, something a little better than an amateur show, with plenty of cringe-worthy moments, right?

    Well, not if that small company happens to be Piedmont Opera, and that small city is called Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Because if that's where you are headed, be advised that you're in for a treat, and will get a world-class performance that wouldn't be ashamed of figuring side by side with the shows of the Category I companies. No kidding. That's exactly what I got, tonight. I know it's hard to believe - you might assume I'm being too generous. But I swear, what I'm saying is no hyperbole. It's the naked truth. You doubt me? See it for yourself, by clicking on this link that will take you to a 3'37" video clip of the production (credited to Steve Davis Photography and Video):

    [click here for video clip]

    Perfect? No. Perfection is very rare in opera. I think the closest approximation to perfection I can quote of recent memory were a couple of Glyndebourne productions (their famous Così fan tutte and Giulio Cesare, which both should be part of academic classes on how to stage and perform opera). But oh boy, given the limited resources they have, I can't imagine too many ways of improving upon what Piedmont Opera did tonight.

    Like I said, I happen to have seen this very same opera less than three months ago at Glimmerglass. Well, let me tell you, not only this Piedomont Opera production was of overall comparable level of quality, it actually surpassed the Glimmerglass show in a number of areas. If you remember my review of that show, I wasn't entirely satisfied with the orchestra. No such concern at Piedmont Opera. Maestro James Allbritten did some conducting tonight! I already liked the man, and now he grew in my respect even more. And the Winston-Salem Symphony sounded way better than the Glimmerglass orchestra, delivering the full Wagnerian sound we crave, which wasn't the case in upstate New York.

    I'll tell you more in a moment about the surprising high quality of the staging, but even though the imagery in three large projection screens drew numerous "wows!" from the public, it was the music in this production, both vocal and instrumental, that delivered peaks of pleasure to the Wagner fan. The love duet between Senta and the Dutchman was a thing of beauty that left me tearful and with goosebumps. Helped by Maestro Allbritten's phenomenal conducting, Mr. Jake Gardner and Ms. Carter Scott were nothing less than sublime in their singing.

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    Steve Davis Photography and Video

    Their performance throughout the evening makes me wonder how capricious fame can be: it's probably a question of being in the right place at the right time, and many worthy artists who aren't as lucky, are unfairly left behind. While Mr. Gardner and Ms. Scott are experienced singers who have both enjoyed prestigious assignments in great houses, they aren't as well known as some of the luminaries we see, for example, as regulars of the Met and the Royal Opera House. But I'll tell you what: they could both be singing these roles anywhere in the world in the best of companies, and wouldn't be doing any worse than their more famous colleagues. I believe that both artists were simply flawless today. They filled the house with their powerful, well modulated voices, and sang each note with the utmost precision, and each line with elegant and moving phrasing. Bravi, Ms. Scott and Mr. Gardner!

    Brian Banon as Daland was also entirely satisfactory, not only singing well, but acting the role with the right rendition of his greedy and callous character. The always interesting Kate Farrar (I've seen her many times in Piedmont Opera and Fletcher productions) was a very good Mary. The two young singers Jonathan Johnson and Jason Wickson were entirely appropriate as the steersman and Erik, respectively. While the other singers were not as spectacular as Mr. Gardner and Ms. Scott, there were no weak links, and as an ensemble, this cast was truly excellent. Since I'm comparing with Glimmerglass, I'd say that again, overall, the Piedmont Opera cast did better. Jay Hunter Morris at Glimmerglass was a better Erik than Jason Wickson (a bit of an unfair comparison given Jay's much longer experience over his younger colleague), but that's about it. The other cast members were at least just as good. In these two productions we got profoundly different leading characters - at Glimmerglass, Senta (Melody Moore) was more passionate and assertive, and the Dutchman (Ryan McKinny) was scarier, more sinister, and wilder; at Piedmont, Senta was more romantic and naive, and the Dutchman more tragic and tortured. But within the different styles, all four singers did equally well, with a slight edge in terms of musicality and beauty of tone for the two Piedmont singers. Tonight's Mary was definitely better than Glimmerglass', while Daland and the steersman were comparable, maybe with a slight edge for Glimmerglass.

    The staging: certainly Francesca Zambello's at Glimmerglass was intriguing and beautiful, but this was one of the major surprises of the night: this team of Steven LaCosse, Mark Pirolo, Norman Coates, and David Palmer at Piedmont did at least as well, if not better. The three large screens had dazzling projections that brought a degree of visual beauty to this production that is very rarely seen in a regional opera company. It wasn't 100% effective, given one aspect that I found to be less than ideal: the Dutchman's ship wasn't spooky enough. I think this is one of the only elements of this show that might use some fine-tuning. While many of the visual effects were appropriately phantasmagorical and somber, the ship wasn't one of them. Otherwise, the projections not only delivered realistic backgrounds, but efficiently underlined the mood of most scenes.

    Movements on stage were very well managed. This is a recurring characteristic of Steve LaCosse's stagings: he seems to have excellent notions of dynamic use of space and appropriate blocking, because the flow of characters and choristers in Mr. LaCosse's shows are always very precise and smooth. Lighting was excellent.

    In summary, this was most definitely an A+ performance from the musical standpoint with great conducting, instrumental playing, and singing. I'd give to the physical production a grade A (with a very tiny room for improvement).

    I believe this was the best production by Piedmont Opera I've ever attended, and this is saying a lot, given the considerable powers of this small company. For those who haven't been following our reviews, it is worth repeating that part of the high quality of Piedmont Opera results from the unusual environment where it is located: Winston-Salem is a rather artsy city with patrons who value classical music and are enthusiastic supporters of the company; the Winston-Salem Symphony is a respected and experienced orchestra; the presence in town of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Fletcher Opera Institute allows talented people like James Allbritten and Steve LaCosse to remain local, given that they double as UNC-SA faculty; the frequent collaboration between the Fletcher and Piedmont Opera enables the company to count on, among other things, a good chorus, good dancers, and physical production resources. I think that another element is how nice these people are. Frank Dickerson's enthusiastic leadership, and Maestro Allbritten's charming personality and musical passion seem to be catalysts for the company: talking to the singers, they all love to perform for Piedmont Opera, and they say so not as lip service, but mean it (I can tell). There seems to be a vibrant environment in this company that contaminates the entire crew and cast.

    I'd go a little farther and propose that tonight's show was one of the best operatic performances recently presented in the entire state of North Carolina, period, all companies considered, as in a very short list of the very best. NC Opera put together a show of rare beauty with Glass' opera-ballet Les Enfants Terribles, in collaboration with Carolina Ballet. Opera Carolina had a Les Pêcheurs de Perles with similar exquisite visual impact with projections, as well as a couple of very tasteful productions with imagery from visual artist Jun Kaneko. Visually, tonight's The Flying Dutchman was just as compelling as these shows, and musically, like I said, it was close to perfect, so, this standard is hard to beat.

    My deeply felt congratulations to Piedmont Opera for an outstanding show!
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); October 31st, 2013 at 12:19 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  3. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Don't miss the next interesting event in Winston-Salem:

    Maestro Allbritten will conduct the UNC-SA Symphony Orchestra and the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale in Verdi's Requiem on Friday November 8 at 7:30 PM at the Stevens Center. The cast of young singers is well known to me and very good: Kristin Schweke, soprano; Kate Ferrar, mezzo; Jonathan Johnson, tenor; David Weigel, bass-baritone. For tickets, call 336-721-1945.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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