Review: In a week of voices, ‘Barber’ misses mark | AspenTimes.com

Review: In a week of voices, ‘Barber’ misses mark

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Striking voices were on display at the Aspen Music Festival this week. Some were in the first production of the opera season, others in separate master classes with the celebrated mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young and conductor James Conlon, in town to collaborate on Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” on Sunday.

Aspen Opera Theater Center’s productions deliver their pleasure most often from the enthusiasm of talented young singers along with bold, clever direction and the musical leadership of distinguished conductors. Although no one expects the singers, most of them students in the festival’s vocal program, to make us forget the big names of the opera world, sometimes they do.

Unfortunately the opera gods did not smile on Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” the first production in a set of three operas this summer derived from the plays of the 18th-century playwright Beaumarchais. Next is Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” which picks up the same characters a few years later. John Corigliano’s 20th-century gloss on the same characters (plus a few others) completes the trilogy. Let us hope the gremlins that played havoc with this production have moved on.

Allergies and other respiratory illnesses reportedly were responsible for the ills suffered after opening night by several of the lead singers, including tenor Benjamin Hilbert, who came a cropper trying to sing through his illness as Count Almaviva. His understudy, Brenton Ryan, sang the arias and ensembles from the stage left box as Hilbert mimed the role and did the best he could with the recitatives. Other singers, heard in the third and final performance Monday, had problems executing coloratura passages, which occur often in Rossini. Neither the title character, sung by the raffish baritone David Krohn, nor Rosina, sung by the engaging mezzo-soprano Ellie Jarrett, smudged over the rapid ornamentations.

Two bass-baritones did much better on that score. Adam Lau huffed and blustered while spinning out well-turned runs and admirable bel canto singing as Dr. Bartolo. But the best singing of the cast came from the lanky Christopher Besch as Don Basilio. His buffo aria, “La calunnia,” hit all the right points, and he used his height and wingspan to comic advantage.

Director Garnett Bruce avoided larding on too many gags, but he directed with little flair for the effervescence of the action and an annoying disregard for logic. There must have been a reason why the rolling trucks holding a door-and-balcony assembly were being rolled to and fro in the Act I finale, but it stumped me. Another time Figaro prepared a bowl and strop for a shave, then exited without using it.

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Conductor Josep Caballe-Domenech, an early alumnus of the festival’s conducting academy, elicited excellent playing from the mostly student orchestra, although the Champagne-like spritz of Rossini’s music never quite made an appearance.

In two separate master classes Tuesday, an experienced singer and a veteran of the opera pit made about a dozen young singers just a little better.

At Harris Hall Tuesday afternoon, de Young worked with six talented singers, both men and women. The indirect methods singers must use to get their bodies to be the instruments that produce the sound and the music they want would not surprise anyone who has done any vocal training. De Young used several odd-sounding means to get singers not to inhibit the flow of air that produces the rich sounds we expect. By miming the tossing around of hot potatoes or walking backwards while singing, she got the singers to sound better. Mezzo-soprano Chorong Kim, singing the Composer’s aria from Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” benefited tremendously from these exercises. They opened up her sound, which produced the ardor for music that is the crux of the aria.

“It’s all about opening the flow of air to create those extra overtones we feel in our heads, not just in our ears,” she said.

But she also got the singers to focus on the text, which in a well-written song or aria often makes the music come to life. Tenor Spencer Lang upped the ante on his already polished performance of the Strauss song “Allerseelen” by more specifically acting out the words. Once soprano Teiya Kasahara internalized the character’s situation in “Regnava nel Silencio” from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the piece came to life.

In his evening class at the Wheeler, Conlon frankly told the audience that he would be using the singers as guinea pigs to explain things about how opera works. He used soprano Sophie Wingland’s charming singing of “Caro nome,” Gilda’s famous aria from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” to show how a composer could use brief pauses in the music to convey the character’s breathless excitement. And then he demonstrated how the singer could make it work better by realizing that those breathless rests only interrupt a long descending phrase. “Learn the phrase legato, then put in the pauses,” he advised.

He also wanted to show how conductors and singers work together in early rehearsals. The results could be stunning. First time through Mimi’s Act III aria, “Donde lieta,” from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” South African soprano Golda Schultz sang beautifully. And then she drew tears from the audience by sharpening up the musical directions in Puccini’s score. Baritone Lorant Najbauer sounded fine in Dr. Malatesta’s aria, “Bella siccome un angelo,” from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” until Conlon reminded him, “You’re a baritone; act like one.” By taking on a superior attitude, he made the aria funnier.

Not to miss this weekend: The dashing Russian violinist Valeriy Sokolov plays the Beethoven Concerto Friday in the tent, Andrey Boreyko conducting, and returns Saturday afternoon for Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in a free concert at Aspen Chapel. Audra McDonald, who straddles the classical and Broadway worlds, appears in Harris Hall Saturday evening for the season benefit. Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert features de Young and Conlon in Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.”