Angela Allen

 

‘Aida’ and ‘Rigoletto’: lush Verdi

Portland and Seattle productions' opulence and timelessness overcome oft-staged operas’ overfamiliarity

Two stunning Giuseppe Verdi operas in one West Coast weekend are a treat, unless grandeur is not your thing.

Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, which opened May 4 at Keller Auditorium and continues with performances on May 10 and 12, and Seattle Opera’s Aida, with a two-week run through May 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, were full-blown triumphs. If we’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and though they’re weighted down with sexism and un-fluid gender roles, as the trendy phrase goes, these productions showed frequently staged operas can remain exciting.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Remember, this music, written by Italians, was first performed in the mid-19th century. Today, the operas can inspire us to discuss and sort out sex roles and gender traps more honestly than in the old days. If we’re willing to suspend imagination, they can challenge rather than frustrate us.

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Cécile (McLorin Salvant) review: first-name basis

Rising jazz vocalist draws deep admiration and girl crushes from female Portland jazz singers

by ANGELA ALLEN

Ella and Bessie and Billie (and Cher and Pink and Prince and Madonna). But let’s stick to jazz.

Now there’s Cécile. She has two other names (McLorin Salvant) but she earns the first-name-only tag.

She is the It Girl among jazz vocalists. Her singing has it all: perfect pitch, a range from tenor to high soprano, precise articulation, full-on emotion, playfulness, varying timbres. As well as improvising on standards, Cécile composes and arranges many of her songs, distinguished by clever lyrics, a wry dark view of romance, an unflinching look at the pressures of female beauty standards and behavior, a funny dead-on assessment of male chauvinism, a lack of sentimentality, a timelessness.

Cécile performed at Portland’s Revolution Hall. Photo: Mark Fitton.

She sang at Portland’s Revolution Hall in late April with pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanying — and she was magnifique, as was the subtle touch of the ever-modest Fortner. These two should stick together on stage and in the recording studio; their chemistry works like magic, and they riff off of one another as if they’ve been performing together for decades rather than several years.

Cécile is fluent in French and studied in Aix-en-Provence. Her father, a physician, is Haitian, her mother French, so “magnifique” fits her versatile voice and her large expressive hands like a glove. She broke into big-time jazz as a teen-ager when she won the Thelonious Monk Competition. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin and Al Jarreau chose her in 2010 for her “remarkable voice and striking ability to inhabit the emotional space of every song she heard and turn it into a compelling statement.” The 28 year old has already won two Grammys for the best Vocal Jazz Album: 2016’s For One To Love and this year’s double CD Dreams and Daggers.

That CD supplied many of the tunes in Cécile’s hour and 45-minute Portland performance (“Nothing Like You,” “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “J’etais Blanche”). She filled out the set with such oldies as “Lush Life,” “Stepsisters’ Lament” and the touching “John Lewis,” an a cappella encore. Wearing a satiny tent-like aquamarine dress, plain flat sandals, and large signature glasses that framed her restless, animated eyes, she stayed on task with little fanfare, a few jokes and no froufrou.

Instead of my celebrating Cécile alone, I asked several Portland jazz vocalists familiar with her to give me their takes on her singing.

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‘Albert Herring’ review: keeping it fresh

Portland State University production overcomes the challenges posed by Benjamin Britten’s mid-20th century opera

by ANGELA ALLEN

British composer Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a challenging opera for both performers and audiences accustomed to the usual Romantic classics. Though funny, it proved a serious undertaking for the Portland State University Opera this week at Lincoln Performance Hall. Delivered in two acts and several scenes, with three changes of bright creative scenery and lighting, the opera proved an achievement for these students, most of them undergraduates—and it succeeded in overcoming many of those challenges.

Britten composed Albert Herring after World War II and it debuted in 1947, when he directed it at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. The comic chamber opera portrays an uptight Victorian English town, similar to Britten’s own Lowestoft in Sussex. Its stuffy, class-conscious “dignitaries” decide the only person fit to be crowned May “king” (the queen potentials are voted down for their various sins and indiscretions) is the virginal, naive and henpecked Albert Herring.

That star role is sung here by uber-talented tenor Christian Sanders, who worked with the PSU cast this spring. He is a resident artist at the Utah Opera and has sung major roles in such operas as La Boheme, Falstaff, Little Women, the Magic Flute, Gianni Schicchi and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. He sang the prince chaplain in the 2013 world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera with renowned countertenor David Daniels. So he’s been around.

Christian Sanders stars in Portland State University’s production of ‘Albert Herring.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Sanders’ maturity and versatility gave the opera, directed by stage veteran Brenda Nuckton, a professional texture. Early on, he played Albert as a tight-lipped insecure nerd toiling in his mother’s grocery store as hilariously he did the last act’s disheveled cad. He uses his 25-quid May Day prize to get thoroughly loaded, despite the town’s expectations of him as a goody-goody. He can still sing when drunk.

Sanders performed his transformative role with stage-savvy sparkle and athleticism, so onstage he convincingly overcame Albert’s awkwardness. The tenor approached the role as an outsider and misfit—and Britten creates these characters regularly—and he made Albert change and oddly–grow.

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