"Illusion is the first of all pleasures." – Oscar Wilde
"A pleasant illusion is better than a harsh reality." – Christian Nevell Bovee
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." – Albert Einstein
And so it goes: that old struggle between what's real and what's not, what should earn our attention and what to let go, and what we project to exist versus what actually is.
For example: after driving around in these mountains west of Asheville amid occasional confused cows standing in the middle of the road, there is no reason in the world to expect a full-on opera production to appear in the woods, let alone a good one.
But here we are and it is a dandy experience. Brevard Music Center's Janiec Opera Company is poised to become one of the nation's premier stops on the arts calendar and may already be a top-three choice of graduate vocal students building resumés. The company is named after long-time BMC conductor Henry Janiec, who founded the opera program. Upon his retirement from the Center at the end of 1996, it was named in his honor, and today he is Artistic Director Emeritus. He returns annually to lead a pops concert; this year, on July 16, he will conduct a "Bravo Broadway" program.
This full-bore, hard-charging company now boasts a production staff of 48 headed by General Manager John Greer and supported by stage directors David Gately, Vincent Liotta, and Martha Collins. More than 40 vocalists are here to expand their repertoire and gain valuable real-world performance experience during a brutal nine-week run creating a completely new opera production every two weeks.
The main venue is the outdoor, exposed-side Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, which has been steadily upgraded over the years to accommodate the two dominant functions of the center – large symphonic ensembles and opera productions. Over time, acoustic panels have been added above to improve noise reduction and promote a better listening experience. Microphones are used for stage productions. The quality of this sound and its balance in relation to a pit orchestra or stage-based orchestra is wonderfully held in context by using strategically-placed top-line JBL speakers. In fact, you don't even know where the mics are placed. Supertitles – projected images of the libretto – appear on the upper proscenium.
Much harder to control are after-sunset flying things attracted by the stage lights. While heavily focused on the story and music, creatures certainly mimicked by Burt Rutan's aircraft designs sail into your field of vision, setting up challenges for whichever illusion statement best describes the moment....
On June 25, right on time, conductor David Effron appeared, and with a sweeping gesture cued the 47-member pit orchestra into the Overture to Rossini's The Barber of Seville, setting a quick pace that's in tune with the wonderful ensemble and sound balance and producing a panorama of familiar melodies – and as I've said before, some of us learned these themes on Saturday mornings spent with Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Warner Brothers. (Memorable images come back to haunt at capricious times, not the least of which was an hysterical laughing jag experienced during a guitar recital of opera themes a few years ago when my friend Steven Walter began to whisper Elmer Fudd's refrain, "Kill the waa-bitt, Kill the waa-bitt." But I digress....)
Act I, Scene 1, sung in English.... The supertitles are in English, too, and I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer to hear the lyrics as Rossini set them. For my part it's not a huge objection, but English-interpreted Italian opera seems like a fundamental disconnect. Still, Figaro's aria is a fine beginning, sung and acted by baritone Sean Damm of South Huntington, NY. He commanded the stage well, had excellent intonation, and fit the part. There is a reference later in this Act to a drunkard as "when a man is in his cups." I learned this phrase many years ago from Lise Mann, the virtuoso flutist from Seattle, and we have come to agree, as in this opera, that a man in such condition is not at his most attractive....
The plot is a comic farce of love, power, deals, miss-communication, manipulation, and greed – all the same stuff we observe in contemporary “soaps.” Born as Almaviva in collaboration with librettist Cesare Sterbini, using the first Barber... by Beaumarchais (1775) as the departure point, the 23-year old Rossini changed the title back to Il barbiere di Siviglia after commercial success. Basically, Count Almaviva is in love with Rosina. To unite is a complicated process. Local barber Figaro becomes a central figure of political intrigue and match- and deal-making. After much high theater and great singing, the complications are vanquished and love is served.
Mezzo-soprano Megan Roth of Cincinnati played Rosina with a rich sense of character and a brilliantly versatile voice. Her body language captured not only the character's intent but also hinted at illusions. Her appearance was front-rank and solid. We'll see and hear more from her! Rosina is often played by a soprano but it was I think intended for a mezzo-soprano. It's worth noting that BMC placed the correct instrument in the role.
Count Alamaviva was solidly played by Mark Craig, Dr. Bartolo, by Tyrone Hayes, Don Basilio, by David Young, Fiorello, by Andrew Hill, and Berta, by Dana Schnitzer, who is a soprano to remember. This entire cast hit all the marks, acted with conviction, didn't knock over any of the scenery, and sang like tomorrow was canceled. It was a memorable production all around.
Director Vincent Liotta, of Indiana University, looked after all the details very well, including, in particular, scenery of sun-washed lemon yellow hues set against red tile and green foliage. The turntable set made for easy scene changes by simply rotating the whole thing 180 degrees, providing an instant difference between inside and outside Dr. Bartolo's house. The lighting remained constant with two exceptions: when a knock on the door ( "The Guards are here!") froze the action, and then during the storm scene, with lightning and thunder.
Musically, this score is of course a treat. Effron played all the recitatives at an electronic keyboard. In particular, the Act I, s.1, recitatives for Figaro and Rosina were very convincing and nicely done – and he then instantly sprang into conductor mode to begin the next segment. He is an easy candidate for "Multi-tasking Man" (we'll need tights and a cape), but if you were to ask, he'd probably shrug it off as all part of the job, another day at the office.... Again, he was responsible for every beat of the work, from cues for singers on stage to more volume from the bass to this funny conducting motion that's like rapidly wiping your windows at shoulder height in all directions at once. I don't know what that means but I don't need to know. The cast knew, and that was enough.
Allowing for a twenty-minute intermission, the opera came in at two hours and twenty-five minutes. That's moving it right along without rushing. It was professional all the way – and that’s no illusion.
Put these on your calendar: H.M.S. Pinafore: dress rehearsal July 7, performance July 9; Sweeney Todd: dress rehearsal July 21, performance July 23; and Rigoletto: dress rehearsal August 4, performance August 6. All start times are 7:30 p.m. For more information, click here [inactive 11/05] or visit http://www.brevardmusic.org/index.php.
Note: For a review of the BMC's opening night, 6/24/05, click here.