Review: A crowd-pleasing weekend at the Music Festival |

Review: A crowd-pleasing weekend at the Music Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Time
William Bolcom's comic opera "A Wedding" at the Wheeler Opera House in an Aspen Opera Center production.
Courtesy photo |

Certain operas seem to fit perfectly in the Wheeler Opera House in summer. Puccini’s “La Boheme” opened the season two weeks ago with a stage full of youthful, passionate singers that lent a layer of reality to the story of penniless artists in 19th-century Paris. With singers being available in big numbers, operas that require large casts are more feasible here than in professional companies that need to contract with a crowd.

For “A Wedding,” composer William Bolcom’s adaptation of Robert Altman’s sprawling 1978 film comedy for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004, the cast had been reduced from 48 in the film to 18 for the opera version. But it still plays so many characters against one another that after the two-hour show we’re still figuring out what just happened.

The Aspen cast not only inhabited distinct characters — their timing made the jokes crackle. The orchestra, reduced in scale from the original for a 2008 Music Academy of the West staging, carried the ball effectively for the music. Typically of the eclectic Bolcom, the score plays no favorites among such influences as Rossini, country and Western music, Broadway, jazz and Italian popular song.

It’s a romp from start to finish, but a comedy with heart. The libretto, co-written by Altman and Arnold Weinstein, delves into family, extended family and personal relationships. It not only has its fun with them but presents characters with temptations, moral choices and other conflicts that, for the story to work, must be (and were in this staging) taken seriously. I noted three major seductions, plus a few fleeting ones, an interracial romance (big stuff in the 1970s), sibling rivalries, friendships gone awry, and countless oversteppings of social strata.

More tightly constructed than the film, the opera feels more vigorous. Bolcom’s music adds color and shadings, using the genre’s set pieces to bring conflicts to life. There’s no better example than the seduction at the heart of the opera’s spinning wheels, an attraction between mother of the bride Tulip (soprano Julia Walcott in a tour de force performance) and Jules (baritone Michael Aiello), an uncle of the groom by marriage. Tulip waffles in a perfectly pitched series of arias, duets and scenes, while Jules, a retired doctor, dutifully injects his addict sister-in-law Victoria (soprano Ashley Yvonne Wheat in a well-sung but perhaps too-wracked-up performance).

Other strong performances included mezzo-soprano Jessica Johnson Brock as both Nettie, matriarch of the groom’s family, who dies in Scene I, and her twin sister Aunt Bea, a socialist and hippie who aims to scandalize. The magic of makeup made tenor Jubal Joslyn believable as Luigi, the Italian immigrant father of the groom, and his pliable lyric voice stood out for its ease and expressiveness, especially in a duet with his estranged brother, Donato (tenor KyuYoung Lee), all in Italian (and not translated in the supertitles).

Worth noting was the steady baritone of Cody Monta’ as Randolph, the family butler from the Caribbean (who may be the sanest character in the show), and sleek baritone Jacob Ingbar as William Williamson, a heavily made-up and spangly costumed “professional guest” who somehow gets involved with several subplots.

Accents among all these folks may have been intermittent, but juicy singing and comedy paved the way for an evening that kept a near-capacity audience in its seats to the end — which doesn’t always happen with contemporary opera.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra program had no problem pleasing a crowd, either. Brahms’ double concerto for violin and cello took the center, with two magnificent soloists contributing incisive and gorgeously phrased playing.

Violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who has been wowing festival attendees since she was a preteen, were on the same page from the first bowings. In sync they unfurled the music with point, precision and passion, as if they had been performing as a duo for years. The music soared. This will be remembered as one of the highlights of the summer.

Two highly descriptive and popular works by Richard Strauss surrounded it, and the sweet opener was Johann Strauss Jr.’s serene waltz, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” Conductor Tomas Netopil, an alumnus of the festival’s conducting academy, painted colorfully with a broad brush and drew richness of sound and transparency when required.

In the Strauss works, Netopil seemed intent on getting all the pieces to fit together, leaving it to the individual musicians to make something special out of them. In this music, that’s not a bad thing, because the notes on the page carry enough oomph to make the waltzes of “Danube” and a suite from the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” sashay past happily. “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” benefited from a series of terrific solos by the principals, notably Bing Wang’s elegant violin solo, John Zirbel’s punchy French horn enunciations and the whole clarinet section’s voicings of the title character’s moods.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert revealed just how good Ray Chen has become since he was a student here nearly a decade ago. He looks good onstage and sounds even better. He deployed pinpoint articulation and sleek tone to great advantage in Lalo’s showpiece “Symphonie Espagnol,” digging deep for rich sound when called for, favoring shimmering resonance on the silkier phrases.

To be sure, the Lalo is all about whipped cream, Iberian rhythms and showoff technique. In his jaw-dropping encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 21, he executed double stops and rapid-fire up-bow staccatos like they were child’s play. I’m guessing the entire audience hopes Chen will return. Next time will be an opportunity for something with more red meat.

Finnish conductor Pietari Inkenin, recently of the New Zealand Symphony, led a fluid accompaniment for the concerto and, after intermission, aimed for sprightly tempos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major. Dense textures, however, kept the music from dancing as deftly as it might have done.


The redoubtable Pacifica Quartet plays Chausson, Shostakovich and Beethoven on Thursday night. Stefan Jackiw, who was sensational in Ives last week, returns Wednesday to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Aspen Philharmonic. Later that evening, violinist Jennifer Koh focuses on Saariaho’s masterpiece “Graal Theatre” accompanied by an ad hoc ensemble. There’s more Saariaho on an all-Finnish program Friday with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra under Robert Spano.

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