Review: The 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival

WithBlood.jpg
Ellen Appel
The cast of Fort Worth Opera's With Blood, With Ink
Fort Worth Opera's 2014 festival wraps up this weekend with finale performances of two contemporary American operas and a classic comedy by Mozart. There's a lot of room for diversity within the operatic genre and this year's FWO festival has celebrated the wide range of musical and dramatic styles opera can take. In that sense, it has been a real celebration of the ways in which staged song and story speak as an art form.

Watching and evaluating a production of a classic, familiar opera is a really different experience from reviewing a new work. Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, for example, is a classic for a reason. The music is wonderful and the story hilarious. Not all productions of Cosi work, but there is always the potential for it to be great because the underlying elements -- the song and the story -- are great.

With new operas, there's a lot more to consider. Not only are you evaluating a specific production, but you're also evaluating the opera itself. Does the story work? How could it be better? Is it worth producing again? There's also the tricky reality that we as listeners generally like things we've heard before better than things that are new to us. First impressions aren't always accurate ones.

That being said, over the last couple weeks I saw one of the Fort Worth Opera's classic productions (Cosi), and both of the newer works they produced during their busy 2014 festival. You can see the final performances of all three of these operas this weekend. Here's a quick review of each so that you can make an informed decision when picking your operatic poison.

Così fan tutte

Fort Worth Opera
Composed: by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1790

Language: Italian with subtitles in English and Spanish

Highlights: The two female leads (sung by Jan Cornelius and Kathryn Leemhuis) were stellar on opening night, delivering great comic timing and consistently beautiful singing. Their voices blended beautifully and, frankly, they outshone their male counterparts. Their acting was strong, too. The plot of this opera is wild and can get lost in dramatic translation, but these ladies were just the right amount of fickle and faithful, ultimately coming off as endearingly human.

Lowlights: The costumes were unflattering and distractingly weird. Was it set in the 1920s? Flapperesque costumes suggest so, but the set was unspecific. The poor male leads were left to deal with some bizarre outfits when they appeared in disguise midway through the opera, and Despina looked a little too crazy in some of her getups as well. The set, too, was boring and forgettable.

Summary: This is basically an 18th-century rom-com. Two men -- both engaged -- are bragging about how faithful and true their respective fiancees are when their friend, Don Alfonso, proposes a test. They agree to his sinister plan and tell their leading ladies they have been sent off to war. Then they return in disguise as handsome strangers to see first hand just how faithful their betrothed really are. Hilarity inevitably ensues, helped along a great deal by Don Alfonso and the hilarious maid Despina. The music is classic Mozart -- elegant and witty, playful and gorgeous. The cast is small and their chemistry strong in this production. Simply put, it's a lot of fun to watch. You won't be bored. And you can't go wrong with this choice.

Silent Night

SilentNight.jpg
Ellen Appel

Composed: by Kevin Puts, 2011

Language: Sung in English (with Scottish accents!), French, German and Latin. Subtitles in English and Spanish

Highlights: This is a big, impressive production. The set, designed by Francis O'Connor, is constantly moving and morphing. It's on par with great Broadway shows on this front. Projections on scrims (by Andrezj Goulding) create cool effects that enhance the storyline and are also visually appealing. This is a great looking show. All the elements -- costumes, set, staging and sound -- work together and enhance the drama. Everything is polished, professional and as spectacular as is necessary for a full-scale, modern opera.

Lowlights: This opera requires a huge, almost all male cast. While the singing last Sunday was good across the board, there were no real stand-outs who jumped out as stars. The strength here is in ensemble, not solo, which is fine, but it would be nice if the actor who plays a tenor (Chad Johnson), was more of a showstopper.

Summary: This is a war story about the stupidity of war. It's Christmas Eve 1914 and three groups of soldiers -- one Scottish, one French and one German -- are stuck in a bloody battle. Weary from battle, the three camps, timidly at first, propose a truce for the night. They end up singing together, sharing small comforts like chocolate, wine and whiskey, and burying their fallen comrades together.

From the start, the audience gets to know soldiers from each camp on a human level. A French General, sung expertly by Aaron Sorensen, has a wife at home expecting a baby and all he really wants is news about his family. A German soldier named Nikolaus Sprink is really a pacifist -- a famous tenor who is in love with a famous soprano and would much prefer the life he had before the outbreak of war. Soprano Ava Pine plays Sprink's lover, who, somewhat unrealistically, ends up with the soldiers on the front lines on Christmas Eve. We need her there, though, because she provides a break from the heavy, all-male cast. She is gorgeous in this role and her voice sparkles even at the highest ranges. The music, even upon first hearing, is beautiful, tuneful, complex, thoughtful and effective. It's clear why Puts won a Pulitzer for this opera. It has the feel of an instant classic.

With Blood, With Ink
(pictured at top)

Composed: by Daniel Crozier, 1993

Language: English (Spanish translation available)

Highlights: The two women who portray this opera's lead character, Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz, have the strongest singing voices I heard during FWO's entire festival. They sounded like a million bucks singing together and they make this show work. This is a chamber opera set in a small, black-box theater across from Bass Hall in downtown Fort Worth. It is absolutely fascinating to hear opera in such an intimate setting and it works in this space. Another cool feature to this production is the way the female chorus is positioned throughout, creating some truly beautiful, real-life surround sound.

Lowlights: Musically and dramatically, this opera is a bit hard to connect with, at least upon first hearing. A badly out of tune piano was no help to an orchestra that struggled throughout with intonation and ensemble issues, and the climax of the plot felt rushed and unrealistic. The music is decidedly modern -- don't expect to leave the hall humming a memorable tune -- and while there's nothing wrong with that, it's the kind of music that is hard to really "get" with just one hearing.

Summary: This opera tells the story of a fascinating 17th-century nun/poet/philosopher/writer named Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz. Sandra Lopez plays the older, dying Sor Juana who's memories are depicted throughout the majority of the one-Act work. Lopez's voice is consistently lovely and the moments when she is singing alongside her younger self (Vanessa Becerra) the raw beauty of their sound is mesmerizing. Becerra slightly overplays the enthusiastic young Sister Juana, but her endless passion is believable for such a remarkable character. She even gets a suggestively erotic scene with her mentor and patron, Maria Luisa, payed by Audrey Babcock. It's a little surprising when the two women kiss, but it works with the passionate way Becerra plays her role. Young Sor Juana's tormentor, Padre Antonio (Ian McEuen) gives his character an extra dose of crazed passion as well. This opera might be a palette-stretcher, but if you want to see something markedly different from the operatic norm in a very intimate setting, you'll leave with plenty to talk about.

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