Angela Allen

 

Punk Papageno in Wine Country

Aquilon Music Festival reinvents Mozart’s eternal opera

July’s three-week Aquilon Music Festival in Willamette Valley wine country debuted in summer 2018, and this year, concert-goers might have a better time pronouncing its French name. 

“AK–will-on,” explains Chelsea Janzen, who will sing Pamina in the festival’s centerpiece opera, The Magic Flute. She adds, tongue in cheek, that Baroque scholar Ian Pomeranz, an Aquilon young-artists’ workshop teacher, “would have a much more refined pinkie-up French pronunciation.”

Punk Papageno set design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.
Punk Papageno costume design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.

It was, until recently, an unfamiliar word to the Oregon arts scene. “Aquilon” roughly translates as “god of the northern wind,” and has a sensory connection to Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century poem, “My Sister’s Vineyard.” The verse finishes with “as soon as the Aquilon blows, it brings with it” [rough translation] “the aromas of spices and exotic perfumes”—a heady thought. The name generates further power with its Northwest association and its connection to Aquilon director Anton Belov, 44, a Russian-born opera baritone who can stir up enthusiasm for just about anything musical.

“What we do is a miracle,” Belov said earlier this summer at Dundee’s bustling Red Hills Market, flashing phone photos of the outrageously colorful in-progress set of The Magic Flute that he and his teen-aged son, Andrew, had been working on the previous night. This time around, the festival’s opera will feature a limited orchestra and a full-blown set; last year it was more “guerilla opera,” he jokes, meaning bare-bones with small orchestra and minimal set. 

Chelsea Janzen at Black Walnut 6/20/2019
Soprano Chelsea Janzen in Dundee’s Black Walnut Vineyard, June 2019. Photo by Anton Belov.

About 700 people attended the festival in 2018 at wineries and at Linfield College, about an hour’s drive from Portland in McMinnville. This year, Belov hopes for 1,000 concertgoers as he watches music and culture gain momentum in wine country. “I want to go four weeks next year,” and he will—if he can get funding.

Aquilon students

Megan Uhrinak, 26, a festival singer who doubles as a visual designer and pitches in to help Aquilon efforts in any way she can, was a former student of Belov’s at Linfield College, where he is an associate music professor. She says that Belov and opera changed her life. She grew up in McMinnville, studied biology until she switched her studies to music, and fell hard for opera after working with Belov. “I found that I loved the way it felt to sing in this style, which is both athletic and full of emotion.” She has performed major roles in Portland State University productions, including the part of sourpuss Arminda in this spring’s well-received La Finta. She played the Countess in Aquilon’s Le Nozze de Figaro last summer.

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‘La Finta Giardiniera’: early blossoms

The young Mozart's relatively obscure comic opera, staged this year by both Portland State University and Portland Opera, showcases emerging singers

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by JOE CANTRELL

The obscure La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener) is making its modern-day debut twice in Portland in four months. The opera is Portland State University’s spring presentation (the final show is at 3 pm Sunday, April 28) and Portland Opera stages it in July.

Did Portland’s opera directors have the same dream at the same time?

Or is it the irresistible W.A. Mozart? The composer was 18 — younger than many of these student performers— when he wrote the opera, which premiered in 1775 in Munich. Even if the opera lacks a moral typical of his later pieces like Cosi, Don Giovanni and Figaro, its music hints at the Mozart to come. Guiseppe Petrosellini gets credit for the libretto though there is some controversy around who actually wrote it. Much of it is so repetitive that in the PSU production, subtitles disappear for stretches of time because the characters repeat the same thing over and over.

The Act One opening ensemble: Life, and song, and costumes are abloom.

With its helter-skelter plot, mixed identities, and operatic exaggerations – these characters wear their hearts deeply inscribed on their long sleeves—La Finta, a fun “buffa” piece—is rarely performed, but it provides a good vehicle for young voices and energetic actors. Four couples, plus a mayor, go in and out of love and at times, go stark raving mad, or slightly nuts. The plentiful roles are distributed evenly, so the opera is well suited to such a student production as PSU’s, and in the case of Portland Opera, to up-and-coming resident artists.

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‘Il Trovatore’: clarity amid complexity

Soprano Angela Meade stars in Seattle Opera's vivid production of Verdi's violent tragedy

by ANGELA ALLEN

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall Hall through Jan. 26, is a death-soaked, secret-infused and passion-obsessed opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s gory tale of revenge and jealousy is one juicy piece — when it doesn’t stumble like a lame warhorse.

Which it didn’t. With an intricate plot, mixed identities, terrible secrets and musical beauty and lyricism, it conjures up a well-crafted Shakespearean tragedy. And as with Shakespeare, the audience must pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Thanks to great singers and smart production choices, SO told the tale well.

Michael Mayes (di Luna) and Martin Muehle (Manrico) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The plot is complicated and fueled by the parents’ sins visited upon their offspring. Brothers Manrico, the troubled troubadour (Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle) and the entitled Count di Luna (baritone Michael Mayes) are at battle with each other, but they don’t know they are brothers. The gypsy, Azucena, who burned her own child instead of one of the royal brothers in a revenge plot for her mother who was burned at the stake, rears Manrico and pretends to be his mother, but keeps this secret from him. Then there is the love interest, noblewoman Leonora (soprano Angela Meade) caught in the middle.

Leonora loves the tenor— and spoiler alert —dies for him. He dies, too, beheaded by his unsuspecting brother, the Count. Beheading and witch-burning are portrayed in shadowy form behind a scrim, but prepare for violence, if not bloody. Program notes compare the violence level to Game of Thrones.

As Verdi said, what else is life but death? His two young children and 26-year-old first wife died within months of one another, so death was on the composer’s mind.

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Autumn Leaves: PDX Jazz’s fall season

Presenting organization brings internationally renowned jazz daddies and a mama to Oregon

by ANGELA ALLEN 

Sold out.

It’s no surprise that the piano-driven Tord Gustavsen Trio’s Sept. 30 concert sold out weeks ago. But you still have more chances to catch cutting-edge jazz in Portland this fall, courtesy of PDX Jazz.

Gustavsen and his Norwegian group need a bigger venue than the 100-seat Classic Pianos in southeast Portland. He’s best known in European and Scandinavian circles, but everywhere, Gustavsen’s “reputation is growing,” said Don Lucoff, executive artistic director of PDX Jazz.The pianist and composer has played Portland twice before – once at the Mission Theater and before at Tony Starlight’s when it was on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. This time, a few days short of his 48th birthday, Gustavsen will be showcasing his trio’s newest CD, The Other Side, in part a tribute to his father who died last year and turned his son onto the piano.

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Under his own name, Gustavsen has produced eight albums and won numerous jazz awards. With his cerebral, minimalist melodies and spiritual, quietly expressive approach to the keys, he is often compared to pianists Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans – and certainly the two American keyboardists have been major influences.

As important as piano players are other artists, Gustavsen said earlier this month in a phone interview from Oslo. “The passion for expression and expressing as much as you can in every single note is so important. The best singers have cultivated that art. So Billie Holiday and (saxophonist/composer/bandleader) Wayne Shorter have influenced me as much or more as the pianists.”

New Orleans blues, second-line groups and New Orleans funk add to his influences. The music of Swedish mid-century crossover artist, the late Jan Johansson, who is little known outside of Scandinavia, has rubbed off. Johansson played with Stan Getz and “bridged jazz sensibility with Scandinavian folk music,” Gustavsen said.

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‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: breaking the code

New made-in-Oregon chamber opera addresses bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art 

by ANGELA ALLEN

For know-it-all critics and discerning music-goers, “community opera” can be code for bad music, lousy singers and shabby production.

Not this time.

Tango of the White Gardenia, a collaboration of Cascadia Chamber Opera (previously Cascadia Concert Opera) and Lincoln City Cultural Center, was a triumph, if on a far smaller scale than Portland Opera, or even Portland State University student productions. Composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s Argentine-influenced music and the touching tango-centered libretto by artistic and life partner Tiziana DellaRovere addressed bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art — in this case tango.

Sung in English and helped by projected supra titles, the two-hour opera premiered Sept. 8 at the 220-seat Lincoln City Cultural Center, whose production featured four-musicians-plus conductor, six well-cast singers, and six limber dancers from the imaginative Eugene-based Ballet Fantastique. It now tours to Florence this Friday, then Bend, Astoria and Eugene for further performances with some changes in cast and production crews. (See Oregon ArtsWatch’s preview by Gary Ferrington.)

A scene from ‘Tango of the White Gardenia.’

Tango of the White Gardenia follows two young tango-driven couples through a dance competition, shadowed by dancers/alter egos. As the story unfolds, the characters come to terms with who they are and why they do things that they do. The main character, Sandra, sung expressively by Portland lyric soprano Kati Burgess, eventually understands that being herself is better than trying to be someone else (“the treasure is within you”) — the “somebody else” being Jo-Jo, her bullying counterpart sung humorously and intentionally crassly at times by bad-girl self-declared “fallen angel” soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas. Jo-Jo’s music is somewhat discordant, just as she is.

The chamber opera portrays the struggle to become oneself as arduous, emotionally and physically. There is even a second-act wrestling match between the two young women, and throughout the piece, both sopranos sing and act well.

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Alfred Walker and Angel Blue: stars on the rise

Winning acclaim this summer in Portland's Opera's "Faust" and Seattle Opera’s "Porgy and Bess," the two stars move on to other roles at the Met and in Europe.

by ANGELA ALLEN

More often than not, he plays the villains (Méphistophélès in Faust) and the weirdos (Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle). She portrays the vulnerable tragic heroines (Violetta, Mimi, Marguerite).

Certainly those aren’t the only roles rising opera stars Alfred Walker and Angel Blue perform. But these parts have given them access to the world’s best stages. Both will sing at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2018-19 season – she reprising Musetta in La bohème, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute. And more is in view: Blue will sing Violetta in La Traviata in her Covent Garden debut and Walker takes on Jochanaan in Salome at  Oper Köln and Thoas in Iphigenie en Tauride at Oper Stuttgart.

Walker is singing Porgy to her Bess at Seattle Opera through Saturday. (Read my ArtsWatch review.) They met when she sang Clara and he was Porgy in a 2012 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version of the opera. “Alfred was a great Porgy then and he’s even better now,” said Blue. “He makes the job easier by simply being who he is: talented, fun-loving, and very creative. It is rewarding to work with someone who is open to his colleagues’ ideas and opinions. He is also a great singer with his very strong and supported sound. We blend well together.”


Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

Barrel-chested and imposing in stature, Walker owns a voice loaded with depth and color. Opera News, commenting on his performance in the title role of The Flying Dutchman, called his bass-baritone “inky with clear projection.” Daryl and Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of Portland Opera’s recent Faust said Walker “brought an appropriately dark and threatening lustre to his role” of Méphistophélès.

Walker also is gifted with a huge range, from low E to high A-flat. He can reach baritone heights or descend to intimidating lows. With a facial expressiveness that can light up a stage or transport an audience to hell, he is as fine an actor as singer. And his flexible instrument allows him to play a range of characters. “I love my voice for that reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from Seattle between rehearsals of Francesca Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess. “It keeps the repertoire constantly flowing.”

Recently, Walker was hired for a bass role, but the directors decided the baritone part would be the better fit. Which opera? He can’t say; it hasn’t been announced. But he’s been caught in the bass-baritone change-up more than once.

Blue, who has been compared to the legendary Leontyne Price (Blue calls herself the diva’s “No. 1 fan” and modestly rebuffs the comparison), sings with a bright, vibrant soprano – her stunning timbre has been noted often – and acts with a stage demeanor that can melt hearts.

“The singing was opulent, sturdy, glowing,” the Brownes wrote about her performance in Faust. “Leading soprano Angel Blue (Marguerite) has a perfect voice for this role, and many others to come. Not a light little soubrette voice, this is a three-tool singer: great tensile strength and flexibility (much needed for the famous ‘Jewel Song’) and ravishing high notes.”

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‘Porgy and Bess’ review: Catfish Row Northwest

Seattle Opera’s elaborate new production complements Gershwin’s American classic 

by ANGELA ALLEN

The stars, and there were several, could have carried Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. But they didn’t have to. Conceived by Francesca Zambello, the production was spot-on in so many ways—emotionally attuned, musically uplifting, edgily designed and lit— that there was no need for the fine singers, several on the rise, to work overtime.

A co-production with Glimmerglass, the three-hour opera, with a 30-minute intermission, continues with several performances through Aug. 25 at McCaw Hall. It is selling well, but not sold out.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

If you argue with George Gershwin’s music and librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s (with help from Ira Gershwin) portrait of Catfish Row in the mid-1930s, as many have over time, suspend your imagination. Just dive into this piece and leave the cultural politics for another time. Or another discussion. You can’t put this piece into a box: It’s sad, but not a tragedy. It’s funny but not a comedy. Porgy and Bess is utterly moving—hopeful yet stuffed with such tough realities as poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, unfaithfulness, racism, ostracism, crime.

The heart-rockin’ beauty of the music (“Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” and “My Man’s Gone Now”) and the libretto’s variety and cleverness outclass so many operas plagued with dull and stupid words and plots. The songs alone, and you’ve heard them over and over (“Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history), place the opera at the top of the American repertoire.

John DeMain, 74, who conducted the opera for Seattle in 1987, was back on the podium for this run. He’s led this music many times (the first, at age 32), and his Tony-award-winning Houston conducting helped bring the opera back to life in 1976, so his Porgy history has been a storied one. The music is part of the seamless artistic blend that works so well in this show, with jazz, folk music, klezmer, gospel and classical influences mixed into Gershwin’s Americana pot. Some jazz- and folk-driven instruments are atypical for opera: trombones, saxophones, banjos, clarinets and trumpets, leaving out the strings, except the bass.

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