Gaetano Donizetti wrote 19th-century operas and is best known for “L’elisir d'amore” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.” On Sunday evening “Pie de Tolomei” was given its American premiere and it was a wonderful surprise.
Pia is inspired by a scene in Dante’s “Purgatorio” where pilgrim Dante encounters the shade of Pia, who asks Dante to remember her to the world. She was married to Nello Della Pietra, a Ghibelline lord, whose cousin Ghino is in love with her. Pia arranges to have a note sent to her brother Rodrigo, a Guelph, arranging a secret meeting. Ghino intercepts the letter, which he takes as proof of her infidelity. Bice, Pia’s maid tells Ghino that Pia refuses to see him, which sparks vengeance in Ghino.
The plot is too convoluted to detail here, but the end result is that Nello imprisons Pia for her supposed infidelity and orders her death. Piero, a hermit priest and Pia’s confessor, tells Nello the truth that Pia has not strayed. Nello rushes to his prison to halt the execution but is too late. In a dramatic aria Pia forgives Nello and begs for peace between Nello and Rodrigo.
Amanda Woodbury, a soprano headed for true greatness, who sings the role of Pia with conviction and extraordinary technical virtuosity, was nothing short of stupendous. Her scales and arpeggios were crisp and swift; her ornaments were tasteful and appropriate. She has a tremendous range—from rich lows to dizzying highs.
All the singers were fantastic—and there are just too many to mention individually—but a few stand out. Vera Savage, Pia’s maid, has a rich, mellifluous mezzo that is facile and colorful—with splendid running passages and heartfelt presentation. Nello was sung by Valdis Jansons, a baritone with both a warm, round tone and passionate highs. He brought pathos and sincerity to a character who is more or less a cad.
Cassandra Zoe Velasco, playing Pia’s brother Rodrigo, was stunning. Her voice is not unlike the great Maria Callas, with the familiar timbre of a mezzo as well as amazing coloratura and dazzling high notes. Velasco's voice is perfect for the role of Rodrigo, but she is petite and, physically, not particularly plausible as a leader of opposition fighters.
The Spoleto orchestra was marvelous, as usual; and the chorus, comprised of Westminster students, was equally excellent.
Aurally the production was wholly successful; visually not so much. The setting was transported from 13th-c. Siena to 1930s Mussolini Italy with Fascist sets and costumes. The bitter feud between Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor) and Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) was more personal—son against father, brother fighting uncle—than Facism, which was less individualized.
The anchor of the set looked too much like a game board; the salon of an affluent woman doesn’t make a realistic prison cell. Plus there were simply too many incongruities. The text says Ghino will plunge a dagger into his breast, but he produces a pistol. The common folk who were meant to oppose the uniformed Fascists wore suits and hats. Pia’s confessor—supposedly a hermit and priest—was dressed as a decorated military officer!
The whole Fascist business was ill-conceived. Better Pia in a floor-length brocade gown and tattered, filthy rags. Not only believable; I might’ve wept.
Charleston Post & Courier, May 29, 2018
Ein Deutsches Requiem (German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms has been performed so regularly that it’s easy to forget that it’s awfully hard. I’ve done this piece so I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulties — and there are many — that Brahms places on the human voice.
The sopranos and tenors are stretched to their limits by sustained high notes; the impracticalities of the German language don’t help either. Still, the men and women of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Westminster Choir did an outstanding job Tuesday night at the Gaillard Center. In fact, the chorus was the undisputed star: altos had a rich, easy tone and basses sang clear low notes with solid leaps. I hope Joe Miller, conductor of the concert and leader of the Westminster Choir, bows down to his tenors every day because they deserve it.
It’s repetitive to point out just how fantastic the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is, but each performance is as good — if not better — than the one before it. The cellos and violas made a lovely, embracing sound in the first movement; the start of the funeral march was appropriately mournful.
Miller brought out the best in orchestra and chorus. It was refreshing to hear proper articulations, rolling triple meters, distinguishable diction and unforced choral tone. His conducting is fluid and effective and it confidently reflects the score.
It’s well known that music through Schubert does not incorporate continuous vibrato. Less well known is that continuous vibrato didn’t come into widespread use until the 1920s; thus Schumann, Liszt, Wagner — and, yes, Brahms — should be played and sung without vibrato if historically informed performance is the goal.
Period instruments of the time were different than their modern counterparts: oboes sounded darker; clarinetists were expected to use the indicated transposed instrument. Brahms was particularly fond of the peculiar timbre of stopped notes in natural horn. Valves weren’t invented to move quickly from key to key but to obviate crooks; players depressed the appropriate valve, held it, then used their hand and lips to change notes.
Orchestral placement also was different. Violins sat facing each other, double basses stood at the back of the orchestra and woodwinds and brass sat on elevated platforms. Choruses were placed in front of the orchestra, allowing them to be heard above heavy orchestrations.
Sadly, both Natalia Pavlova and Alexander Dobson weren’t in such good voice as a couple of nights ago when they sang wonderfully well. Pavlova had recurring intonation problems; plus, she sometimes phonates beneath the pitch then reaches up. The same brilliant, penetrating timbre that helped Dobson succeed in the performance of Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” on Saturday made him a poor choice for this work, which requires a warm, comforting sound. He also struggled with the upper register.
Truth is I’ll sit through the whole piece for the high A the sopranos sing at the end. Ladies, you made my evening: it soared. Maestro Miller did everyone — chorus, orchestra, himself and Brahms — proud.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 7, 2018
Before Monday evening I didn’t know marionette operas existed. Now that I’ve seen one I realize I’ve missed out on an awful lot of entertainment. And fun, too, because I laughed my fool head off.
“Il Matrimonio Segreto” (The Secret Marriage) is an operatic style called opera buffa, comedy that is absurd, with a plot that is totally unbelievable, and at least one character that is a total fool. Happily, there was all of that plus more.
The opera was written by Domenico Cimarosa, a contemporary of Mozart, born in Naples. Famous for his comic operas, he was invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine II herself.
The story revolves around a couple—Paolino and Carolina—who are secretly married. Carolina’s father, Geronimo, is a wealthy eccentric who is deaf but doesn’t realize it. He has another daughter, Elisetta; his elderly sister Fidalma also resides there and runs things. Paolino arranges for Count Robinson to marry Elisetta for a handsome dowry, but when Count Robinson sees Elisetta he is repulsed and falls instead for Carolina, who is already married.
Geronimo agrees to the switch, partly because his dowry is halved and his family will be ennobled. Paolino runs to Carolina’s homely aunt Fidalma for comfort, but she misinterprets his distress and cradles him in her arms when he swoons at her declaration of love. Carolina discovers her husband Paolino in her ugly aunt’s arms; he barely persuades her that things are not what they seem.
Count Robinson behaves like a boor. Carolina and Paolino scheme to run away that night and Geronimo has decided to send her to a convent. The whole ruse unravels and the Count takes Elisetta, Fidalma blesses the secret marriage, and everyone coaxes Geronimo to relent. All is swwell that ends well and the curtain falls.
The six singers giving voice to the puppets were just fabulous, not surprising since they are Westminster students. Margaret Bergmark (Carolina) has a lovely voice with easy high notes and facile runs. The same is true of Betsy Podsiadlo (Elisetta), who played the shunned sister with indignation; her scales ran high to low with no effort. Mckenzie Smith (Fidalma) navigated the turns and trills with facility; she turned haughty Fidalma into the most comedic of the three ladies.
Christopher Fludd (Paolino) has a sweet voice that gave gentle Paolino a warmth that befitted his character’s personality. Scott Kover (Count Robinson) knew just how to animate the Count’s hilarious reaction to the ever-frowning Elisetta; he had no trouble with the rapid ornaments and skips. But it was Matthew Marinelli (Geronimo) who stole the show. Somehow he turned his voice into the ridiculous clown necessary to sing along with the hapless father when his leg would bounce up and down.
Needless to say the orchestra—a pared down ensemble drawn from Cimarosa’s original score—was outstanding. These students can play anything; they were stylistically appropriate and never overwhelmed the singers, who were in the pit with them. Conductor Marco Seco held everything together and the transitions were smooth and steady.
But it was the puppeteers who were the real stars. The final curtain rose to reveal eleven wizards who animated those charming wooden dolls. Somehow they coordinated the gestures—every movement imaginable—with the singing and accompaniments. Marionettes floated as they walked; arms flailed about, exasperated; heads rolled and bodies collapsed. It’s nothing short of astonishing.
My companion laughed until she cried and so did I, between moments of disbelief—not at the preposterous plot—but at the miracle that was the marionettes. If there’s a ticket to be had grab it. And bring a tissue.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 1, 2018