A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 21: So many good things…

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Mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer
Mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer

So many good things…

Ah, the tone of a production. Was Schumann right when he quoted Schlegel at the top of his score to the Fantasie this way: “Through all the world’s dream there sounds one tone for him who can hear it?” I’m thinking now of many different pieces — Our Town of Thornton Wilder, first. This concentrated text has the bareness, the emptiness of Greek tragedy on the page. The actions, however, are humble. Is there a single tone there?

Nicholas Martin’s productions have a remarkable humility. They give the impression that this director listens. There is a gentle trust there which frees the actor.  My friends in the singing tribe tell me that Peter Hall often worked this way, particularly at Glyndebourne, even in the dress rehearsal. Martin’s Our Town was humble, even plain. The dialogue in this play can sound artificial. I grew up with Yankees who have worked the land in the same county for two centuries, and I can tell you that they did drop words all over the place. The milkman in Wilder’s play adds after he wishes the young couple, George and Emily, will be happy, this codetta: “know they will.” This can sound absurd if the actor has any actor-ness (the same way that the Maine dialect in Carousel is perilous, or the black dialect in Porgy and Bess). Martin and his pliable actors managed this well. Some heard it as understated. I heard it as natural. The scene in the graveyard had the right tone for once. It was not lugubrious and sad. The Stage Manager, in his most rhetorical (not very) pronouncement, makes it clear that he considers the immortality of the human soul to be a certainty. Those who have died in the scene say simply that they are waiting for something. Their existence is not only continuing — it is expectant. Especially Mrs. Gibbs, Becky Ann Baker, got in this scene a more vital energy than I have seen in any other production, and that vivified it for me. The Stage Manager who is laconic and terse to a fault, goes out of his way, out of his tone we might say, to assert a metaphysical fact. It seemed like George Gibbs’ mother was a believer. The tone of it all pleased me in its humility, and if I may say so, grace. It seemed that its simplicity was something that had descended from above.

After the Revolution by Amy Herzog got some of the best acting I have seen at Williamstown Theater Festival this summer. It is a talky piece which revolves the same issues over and over again — but compellingly. It is pretty much all talking. All of the excellent cast members showed the art that conceals art in the naturalness of their tone. I would like to hear more of Ms. Herzog’s work.

Last week I saw one of the best pieces of singing ever. The opera was Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. The singer was Lucille Beer, and the company was the RESONANZ Albany Singer Intensive Festival, new to our area, and based in Albany. Lucy appeared as a guest artist with some accomplished young singers. Her part in this opera was that of the old and dying prioress, and yes, it did include a death scene. Most of the opera though, is a kind of musical conversation. This is the way of the opera almost entirely. Lucy was a performer a few feet away from her audience, in a tiny space, who riveted the attention. She sang the death scene, (often this is full of yelps), and she sang it in English when the music is really inextricably wedded to its own French libretto. There was no aspect of the action or conversation that was not fully realized by Lucy. She could move from the barest discourse to her own death throes with an imagination, that was fundamental in its power. Everything convinced. What a class this was for the young artists around her. Memorable among them was Andrew Truex, who as always, sang clearly and bravely. I especially liked one of the youngest participants, Caitlin Felsman. Her singing was not a completely finished process, but she had excellent focus and projected a consistent and vivid character. Pianist Sam Emanuel played the score sharply and dramatically. Much of the performance’s success was his doing. Bravo to RESONANZ for attempting this difficult piece and making it work.

Lyubov Petrova as Susanna in Glimmerglass Opera's 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera.
Lyubov Petrova as Susanna in Glimmerglass Opera's 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera.

Character is exactly what was lacking in Glimmerglass Opera’s Le Nozze di Figaro. I admire Leon Major’s decision to make a direct, un-fussy production, with no goofy stuff in it. The trouble was, no relationships, no clear individuality, no real connection on stage. The da Ponte operas have been brilliantly sung and staged in this house. This production took no risks; the fast music did not seem even a little risky. What could be done was shown so clearly when Aurhelia Varak came on stage. She went all the way with her character, Cherubino. She awakened her colleagues on stage. She had ideas. I felt like I would know this Cherubino if I met him on the street. Relationships are Le Nozze di Figaro. It is easy to let the exquisite finish of the opera blunt its edge, its youth, its danger. I was looking for more risk. and that requires not only energy from the pit but depth in the characterization. The tone of this one was pale.

I loved the singing of Emalie Savoy in the Tanglewood Music Center’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. She sang the formidable title role with remarkable connectedness and beauty. Both power and a Lieder singer’s command of detail are required. The lament which is her first big utterance was spot-on every word, each gesture and her stature itself moving all along the complex monologue. She managed the low notes in “Es gibt ein Reich” and the very difficult B flat grace note jump both, with great skill already. What was most wonderful though was that this was a beautiful voice, not just an impressive voice, and the sublime music Strauss gave to the character was moving because of the heart this fine young artist found in it. I’ve seen nothing more beautiful this summer than the senior conductor and the junior soprano making music which was deeply connected. This is what Tanglewood is to me. The tone of this one was what one hears in a great performance of Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung: resurrection, nothing less.

Der ferne Klang at Bard was a fine effort to give us a chance to hear an opera which we all have read about. Great praise to Leon Botstein for undertaking this. Despite its occasional surface beauty and a quite dazzling brothel scene, I found it hard going. There just was nothing to hang on to dramatically or musically. The singers were often overwhelmed with orchestral sound. My favorite part of the whole performance was near the end when the good tenor Mathias Schulz was able to sing softly and beautifully. His fiancée and heroine of the piece, Grete, was sung by Yamina Maamar with magnificent stamina. Still in all it’s a simple story which seems overblown and somehow inert. My lasting image of it is two fine singers trying to outsing a too-loud orchestra. It is a smooth kind of music which seemed rough in this performance. It was a simple story overwhelmed by decibels. Let me say again though that I appreciate the chance to hear it.

Finally the dessert. Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig, a farce which of course includes men in women’s clothing, was with their The Glass Menagerie a few years ago, the best acting I have seen at Bennington’s Oldcastle Theater. There were no weak links; the soubrette was suitably dishy; the very large actor in a dress did not overdo the absurdity — even had a little bit of pathos, the timing was good. The tone of this one was pure fun, and I had fun.

Many different tones, many different makers of tone. Maybe the one tone is living a Berkshire summer.

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