Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Where Are They Now?

June 27, 2011

Ashley Emerson and the boys of the chorus Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

The festival season for Opera Theater of Saint Louis was rounded out by performances of Don Giovanni and Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, both operas I’m predisposed to like. OTSL is a company deeply involved in the development of young American vocal talent. It’s the kind of thing New York City Opera used to do before…well, you know. Both of these productions featured some of the most notable young American singers who demonstrated both the promise and pitfalls of performers at this point of their careers. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is filled with the kind of bread and butter roles most vocalists are encouraged to master not just for matters of technique, but to afford them plenty of opportunities for singing engagements. It’s also worth noting that it is precisely this kind of youthful performer Mozart had on hand for the premiere of the opera in Prague in 1787. What we know of the vocalists who created these roles indicates that most were in their early 20s at the time of the first performance, so the Saint Louis cast may have more in common with what Mozart heard when he conducted the work than what one might believe.

Of course, having a youthful Don Giovanni as capable and dashing as Elliot Madore certainly makes this story of a lothario and the women who just can’t refuse him certainly more plausible. Madore was a winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and Don Giovanni is an ideal role for him. He managed the vocal chores well and has ample stage presence and charm. He’s easy to fall for and not overly brooding as well. There were a number of other standouts in the cast, including Kathryn Leemhuis who sang a clear and sweet Zerlina along side Bradley Smoak’s not entirely hapless Masetto. Sadly the staging under the direction of Michael Shell and James Robinson was probably the weakest of the offerings this season in Saint Louis. Nearly half of the show was delivered in front of a dark blue curtain emblazoned with a reproduction of Mozart’s signature. The curtain was just a bit better than the flat painted backdrop behind it but no amount of pluck on the part of the cast was going to give this dramatic interest. There was a frequent over-reliance of the kind of groping and hip thrusts that provoke easy laughs and a pointless money toss was thrown in to the finale, which provided little more than a nice photo opportunity. The conductor, Jane Glover, kept the pace slow and plodding throughout, not doing anyone any favors. But I’d certainly pay to see Madore again, hopefully in something a little more developed overall.

Elliot Madore throws his money around Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment was much more cohesive in its presentation. A charming, simple storybook set complemented Seán Curran’s highly choreographed stage action. The show had a number of strategic cuts, which kept the focus on a rather sweet take on the story overall. The leads here included Ashley Emerson as Marie and another Met Opera National Council Auditions winner from 2008, René Barbera as Tonio. Both had strong turns in showy and vocally challenging roles. Emerson, who was recently seen in Los Angeles as Flora in Britten’s Turn of the Screw, was a physically comic Marie. She managed the vocal lines well with a clear line if she did turn a bit shrill on the highest notes. I found her a bit cold at first, but she seemed to warm over the course of the evening, which worked in the role overall. She made herself the heart and soul of this production and the audience was clearly taken with her. Barbera has a lovely tenor and he managed the high Cs in Ah mes amis well. He only sounded forced at the very end. His phrasing was a bit more problematic in the Act II aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," and I wish he’d paid a bit more attention to the conductor so that everything was in sync while he was performing. Luckily, Barbera was paired with John McDaniel in the pit who was overly deferential, altering the pace to suit the tenor’s wishes on the fly. McDaniel is a Saint Louis native and has worked extensively on Broadway as well as a stint as music director on The Rosie O’Donnell Show in the late 1990s. But he was a good choice here, given his ear for comic timing.

The highlight of the show, though, was a scene stealing Sylvia McNair whose Duchess of Crackenthorp was expanded a bit and tweaked to be an ex-opera singer. She sang a comic number, Flanders and Swann’s “A Word on My Ear,” which features the refrain “I’m tone deaf” and provided some hysterical moments of her intentionally off-key hijinks. The greatly appreciative crowd gave her the biggest laughs and the biggest ovation of the evening in what became the comic highpoint of a very cute show. Which just goes to show what talent can become when paired with experience. Here’s hoping all of these young vocalists can get to a point in their career where they can enjoy moments like McNair did this year.


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