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A CurtainUp Berkshires Music Feature
Shaker Mountain Peforming Arts Festival
By Elyse Sommer
The overflowing menu of cultural goodies dished up to residents and visitors to the Berkshires inevitably leads to oversights of worthwhile events. The Shaker Mountain Performing Arts Festival, which after two summer seasons presented an expanded schedule that includes four fully staged operas and a children's opera at Berkshire Community College's spacious Robert M. Boland Theatre, is a case in point.
After repeated enthusiastic comments from opera buffs about the quality of the voices, I decided to go see and hear for myself. Having just spent a melodic two and a half hours with Jules Massenet's famous good-time girl, Manon, I'm pleased to report that I wasn't misled. With the Albany Symphony Orchestra to accompany the singers, the composer's most popular opera is in loving hands.
While fully staged, as announced, don't expect a huge chorus, elaborate sets or ballet scenes. Like Shakespeare & Company's successful Bare Bard series these operas are not about visual spectacle and all about hearing beautiful music beautifully sung. The simplicity of the staging has the advantage of telling the story of the fun loving convent girl and her star-crossed love affair with a handsome Chevalier in a compact two and a half hours, with an intermission after the second of the five acts. While the cast of seventeen does at times make the rather stark gray set look somewhat underpopulated, the charm of the music is irresistible -- especially during the last three acts when the arias and duets soar thrillingly.
Darren Chase who will reprise his Chevalier Des Grieux at the July 23rd performance (the cast changes from performance to performance) has a mellifluous tenor voice. If he seems a bit too young and slim for the more mature and stately Manon of Solange Sior, no matter. This is opera where not looking sixteen can be overlooked when the voice is strong, as Ms. Sior's is. She also had the advantage of singing in her native French. There are super titles so French is not required to understand the story.
Things don't end well for Manon. But while she and so many opera heroines die -- this exciting Festival promises to be alive and well for a long time. I'm going back Thursday for Bellini's Norma. This time I'll bring a sweater since the Boland Theatre is air conditioned and short sleeves and sandals without socks are not a good idea.
Postscript-- July 24th. As I mentioned at the end of my comments about Manon, I went back to watch another diva die -- the title character of Bellini's Norma, joined in the death scene by the lover who rejected her. The role of the high priestess of the Druid temple of Eaus has been a triumph and a challenge for many a soprano. The pairing of Joan Sutherland as Norma and Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa is a case of Norma at its most triumphant. The Shaker Mountain Norma isn't the stuff of operatic legend but it does offer rewards to music lovers.
Carolyn James, despite a commanding presence falls short of the acting and singing nuances needed for a truly memorable Norma, but typical of many operas, she gains strength as the work progresses. The most satisfying performances are from Tatiana Ishemova as Adalgisa and Thomas Raud as Pollione. Their voices are superb and manage to rise easily above the somewhat too loud orchestra. The use of draped burlap works quite well to suggest the forest setting.
Coming on Saturday, there's yet another event deserving a larger audience than the Festival has been attracting due to competition from the multitude of other cultural goodies is a concert version of Tosca. You're unlikely to miss the lack of staging with Lisa Daltirus, a lyric soprano of considerable reputation, doing the honors as Floria.
Postscript #2-- August 2nd. Finding myself with a free Friday, I decided to round out this piece with yet another visit to Pittsfield. Their production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore proved to be delightful. This being a comic opera, all's well that ends well. Nobody dies. Love unrequited is requited. The music is a non-stop treat of richly melodic arias, duets and ensemble pieces. The young cast at the performance I saw did full justice to the music, and proved themselves to be able actors. Marcus Auger's gorgeous tenor voice made the lovelorn young farmer a standout. Eric Bieri seemed ideally cast as Dr. Dulcamara, the traveling quack who promises to make love work for all concerned, as well as erase the village's older women's wrinkles. Of the three operas seen, Shaker Mountain's resident designer, Tom Donahue, created the most visually apt and complete staging. The modern costumes abetted the overall look of a production of Oklahoma (though the ensemble and duet singing is more likely to make you think of Gilbert and Sullivan). Conductor Elaine Rinaldi, whose work with the DiCapo Opera in New York I've enjoyed, ably steered the orchestra and avoided having the instruments drown out the voices. It all clocked in at a well-paced 2 and a half hours, including the intermission.
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