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Bizet, Bernstein and Dvorák prove to be worthwhile season closers

“Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” only a few years newer than the Academy of Music, made a lovely evening at the Opera Company of Philadelphia (May 4). Designer Boyd Ostroff outdid himself, creating an inviting background Sri Lankan seascape, with playing spaces set off by diaphanous scrims that suited setting and score to perfection. Kay Walker Castaldo’s staging provided admirable romance and pace––a now joyful, now dangerous fludity was intelligently created, with many telling touches. At times it proved simply too busy. No expressed memory went unillustrated by dancing extras behind scrims––surely we might have been trusted just to enjoy the dreamy “Je crois entendre encore” (especially as sublimely voiced here by William Burden) without upstage distraction. The accretion of thunder, wave sounds, gongs, and gun shots became wearing and unmusical.

That said, “Pêcheurs” stands among OCP’s finest recent achievements due to-––rarest of pleasures in an American opera house––the apt casting of four qualified, expressive exponents of French music and style. Styled in Daniel Day Lewis’ long-locked, bare-chested Mohican mode, Burden and Nathan Gunn effected superb role debuts as the friendly rivals. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary tenor singing Nadir with more artfully phrased silver tone than Burden. Gunn’s mellifluous Zurga wedded pantherish ease onstage to a remarkable command of dynamic shading and fine lyric tone. Mary Dunleavy, every bit as buff as her suitors and very graceful of gesture, was a touching, credible Leila. She too phrased beautifully, with limpid soft singing if a slight (not un-Gallic) edge at full volume. She’ll also be in next spring’s City Opera production of Bizet’s “other” opera, with another highly promising male duo, Yegische Manucharyan and Stephen Powell. Bass David Michael contributed a substantial Nourabad. The chorus sounded patchier in Sri Lanka than it had in Gérolstein; Jacques Lacombe conducted supportively, if a touch sleepily.

One of the most awaited events of the whole New York Philharmonic season was its semi-staged performances of Bernstein’s “Candide”(May 7). Disappointment at a truly tasteless and grating production by Lonny Price balanced happiness at hearing what was played of the former music director’s wonderful if textually problematic 1956 musical beautifully performed by the orchestra under Marin Alsop. Alsop, a Bernstein disciple and one of the more consistently acclaimed younger conductors these days, made a fine showing here and must surely return often.

A few of the singers were excellent. Paul Groves, who has never interested me much in operatic ventures, sang the title role pretty much ideally, with honeyed lyricism and crisp diction. He was asked to play Candide as an utter booby, but did so with some charm. (What happened to his final spoken line, “Marry me, Cunegonde?”) Thomas Allen was a classy Pangloss, singing as fine a “Dear Boy” as one hopes to hear. He handled the faintly embarrassing narration––why are semi-staged operas always saddled with cloyingly arch narrations?––with dignity. Janine La Manna, always a firecracker ––superb, and true to period, as Lois in “Kiss Me, Kate”––did a wonderful job as the lusty maid Paquette. It was salutary to hear how fine Stanford Olsen’s finely produced tenor still sounds, and he hammed his two parts enjoyably and aptly. One wishes he would return to local operatic work, maybe as Mozart’s Tito.

The other hamming––and singing––was less enjoyable, but fit into Price’s concept of the piece, which seemed to be an “anything goes laugh riot”––not satire, but burlesque. The tone was all too evident when the initial mini-curtain rose on the fine ensemble of Broadway gypsies and Juilliard students, all saddled with Groucho masks. Nothing cheap or obvious was eschewed in what followed. Price and Kristin Chenoweth made Cunegonde into a spoiled little slut from the word go, which is surely all wrong. For a Broadway singer, the popular, ovation-garnering Chenoweth has excellent coloratura, but it’s a tiny instrument (as some miking problems showed) and the uppermost notes of “glitter and be gay” were hard as nails.

We were expected to worship at the sheer blinding fact of Patti LuPone’s stardom––Price had the chorus hold up letters spelling out “Miss Patti LuPone” at her initial entrance, and her name was incorporated into the much-doctored book. Her raucous Old Lady ran on all eight cylinders, like Lainie Kazan playing Melina Mercouri. One could understand the words of “I am easily assimilated” (surely, on some level, a send-up of Jennie Tourel, though I’ve never seen it mentioned) but “What’s the use” attained the trademark LuPone incomprehe­nsibility.

The best one can say about Lonny Price’s busy directing schedule is that it keeps him from exercising his “Hey, lookame” style of perfoming. Here he was (as it were) deputized by Jeff Blumenkranz, doing almost a minstrel show turn as “Pathetic Nelly Fag” in the role of Maximilian, Cunegonde’s brother. Maximilian’s gay undertones are certainly there, but the character is meant to be macho and preening (and, not to put too fine a point on it, handsome), not a flittery, limp-wristed queen mincing around in a lavender suit. The more elderly in the audience seemed to get a big charge out of seeing this caricature out of “La Cage aux Folles” enacted in Avery Fisher Hall. But hearing the brilliant score of “Candide” under Alsop made up for a lot. Lyndon Woodside and his strong, trusty Oratorio Society chorus brought yet another worthy novelty to Carnegie Hall––Antonin Dvorák’s “Stabat Mater” (May 13). The piece, which helped to establish the Czech composer’s reputation in Europe in the 1870s, is at times derivative, but as one would expect even of the young Dvorák, beautifully orchestrated (with lots of nice cello writing, well handled by the Westchester Philharmonic) and always tuneful. It certainly gave the chorus good opportunities. I imagine the Prague audience they sing it to this summer will appreciate their dedication and artistry.

The soloists were well-chosen. Young Natalya Kraevsky (deputized for Jennifer Check), fielded a pretty luminous-topped soprano one hopes to hear more of, and Gerard Powers coped manfully with the testing tenor line. Met stalwarts Maria Zifchak and James Courtney had been doing a double act in Dvorák’s “Rusalka” at the Met, and they did well here too. Zifchak had the most extensive solo movement, and handled it very well. Courney’s bass sounded fresher in fact than I’ve heard it in several seasons, with impressive low notes.

A highly worthwhile evening at Carnegie.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among other venues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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