‘Rigoletto’ is a gorgeously-wrought, emotionally devastating take on an opera mainstay

Though I consider myself well-informed in most pieces of the theatre world, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still a novice when it comes to opera. Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, and I know many of the composers and their work, for most productions I have the pleasure of seeing from Austin Opera, I’m coming in practically blind. I was, therefore, not prepared for the emotional napalm that is Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, the wrenching tale of a tortured clown, whose life falls apart after a father’s curse. Polished and beautifully produced, Austin Opera have crafted a gorgeously built emotional roller coaster, that’s sure to leave you with a lump in your throat as the final piercing notes play.

As the curtains open on Austin Opera’s latest production of Verdi’s classic, we’re presented with one of the most draw-droppingly beautiful tableaus I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in some time, with Chad R. Jung’s gorgeous lighting and the beautiful costuming of Susan Memmott Allred coming together in dazzling, earthy tones reminiscent of the Dutch masters. Indeed, if it wasn’t the subsequent action, one could be forgiven for thinking they were taking in a Rembrandt. This beautiful aesthetic carries through most of Austin Opera’s latest, with the impeccable sets and costumes giving the ambiance a luxe, expensive feel that helps immerse us into the court of the period, creating a tangible world, which in turn makes the emotional journey we’re about embark upon take on that much more power.

Michael Chioldi has been a mainstay on the Long Center boards in numerous productions, but I believe this may be the role for which he’s remembered. The titular role of Rigoletto is not an easy one to pull off, as in many ways the horrific events that unfold upon him are of his own doing, and even in his darkest moments there’s a thought that, had he gone forward with a little more foresight, or a little more concern, all of the bloodshed might have been avoided. There’s also a sense of foolishness to the character which would hurt the sympathy in the hands of a lesser actor, but luckily Chioldi is able to carry these many elements on his talented shoulders, giving us a glimmering, multifaceted performance that tugs on our heartstrings despite his character’s questionable actions.

Rigoletto may skirt the line between sympathetic and villainous, but the Duke dances all over it. The character is, of course, the antagonist of the piece, but there’s an earnestness to his actions that one can’t help but appreciate. It certainly complicates things that Kang Wang is such a charismatic presence, and one can see why so many women would be pining after him. For his part, Wang is able to carry a difficult dychotomy with gusto, creating some of the best moments of the production with his cunning and charm.

One mustn’t forget the real rising star of the piece, Madison Leonard, whose effervescent, adorable performance as Gilda practically busts off the stage with youthful exuberance. Her moments of gaiety are lovely moments of respite from the emotional devastation that makes us so much of Rigoletto’s running time, and nearly every time she’s on stage you can’t help but crack smile (at least, until that last act comes along). She shows such a devotion to her role, and has the gorgeous, clear voice to match, that one can only imagine a long, storied career from her in the years to come. One hopes she finds her way back to the Austin stage sooner rather the later.

Opera is, other than perhaps dance, the most concentrated presentation of human emotion the arts has to offer, and “Rigoletto” is a testament to this fact. It’s nearly thee hours of emotional warfare, with Verdi’s gorgeous music underscoring one of the most heartbreaking stories in canon, and Austin Opera’s talented team has provided a polished, poignant presentation of this crushing classic. Though it may be a tough sit for those not used to the tempo of Verdi’s work, fans of the medium will find joys aplenty in Austin Opera’s latest work.

The final presention of Austin Opera’s “Rigoletto” is playing Sunday, November 11th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit austinopera.org.

Photos courtesy of Austin opera.

Tears fall, voices soar, and hearts flutter in Austin Opera’s ‘La Traviata’

Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a near-perfect opera. It comes out of the gate with a bang, with one of the most famous songs in the opera canon, “Labiamo”, energizing the audience for the love story to come, slowly decrescendoing to more quiet love songs in the First Act’s back half. Just when it’s in danger of losing its audience, the piece brings the party, complete with matadors and fortune tellers, before descending into a heartbreaking finale. It moves naturally, and is all backed by Verdi’s gorgeous music, creating one of the most poignant and powerful pieces in the canon. Austin Opera’s production of the work, led by the skilled hands of stage director David Lefkowich and his crew, only helps cement this reputation, creating a production that allows the opera to speak for itself, with its own powerful voice, not resorting to tricks of radical staing, but still bringing all the lusciousness and luxury that makes the piece such a delight.

When played well, Verdi’s music feels like falling in love. Something about the grand, rich strings and softly flowing phrasing sets the heart aflutter, and when its coming out the mouths of singers like Marina Costa-Jackson and Michael Chioldi, it becomes something of a transcendent experience. There were many moments I found myself in awe, closed-eyed and mouth agape from the splendor of it all (surely missing important dialog or plot points in the process). The Austin Opera Orchestra, led skillfully by conductor Steve White, has never sounded better, carrying the Verdi’s moving passages with depth and grace.

At its heart, this production is a showcase of immense talent of Marina Costa-Jackson, who plays the iconic role of courtesan Violetta Valery. Though the opera gives her plenty of opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics, La Traviata is at its best when its using Costa-Jackson’s astounding vocal skills for emotional effect. In the quieter, more romantic moments in the play’s first act, she sings as if she is casting a spell upon her audience, making it nigh impossible to look away. As the play enters its second act, her voice weaves  mesmerically into Verdi’s gorgeous music, giving the sensation of floating out of one’s chair. Though the piece is sung entirely in Italian, dialog becomes secondary, as as Costa-Jackson’s emotive face tells a story all its own. Her wily, seductive smile and bewitching eyes make us fall in love easily early on, but it’s when Violetta’s forced into her more sorrowful moments where the singer truly shines. Her performance here is a study in the downward spiral, as we watch this bright-eyed wonder become sullen and sickly by the production’s end, and that Costa-Jackson is able to sell every moment, from the vibrant opening stanzas to her final, heartbreaking moments, is a powerful testament to her abilities as an actress.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work being done by Michael Chioldi as Germont, whose all too brief moments on stage make up some of the most stunning passages of the work. The entire opera turns on his actions, so it’s essential that his performance is powerful, but it’s the tenderness he brings to the character that’s most refreshing. Even as he’s breaking Violetta’s heart, Chioldi’s shows a softness to Germont that belies just how much he cares for those affected. In addition, his full, powerful voice harmonizes surprisingly well with Costa-Jackson’s, adding another level to the cornucopia of mellifluousness on display, keeping the audience rapt.

When it’s at its best, there are few forms of art that portray emotion better than Opera. From the exaggerated characterizations to reliance on constant music, the feelings are forced to come to the fore, and when the right cast finds the right material, it can create a truly moving experience.  Austin Opera has done just this with La Traviata, transporting its audience into a world of richness, luxury, and wonder, and enveloping them in all of the romance, effervescence, and despair that an amazing tale like that of courtesan Violetta can deliver.

Austin Opera’s ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ is a piece of postmodern perfection

There can be certain preconceptions that come with experiencing opera. One need only watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon to see how much the style is parodied and lambasted, thanks to its grandiose feelings and esoteric drama. With the opening production of their latest season, Kelley Rourke’s audacious translation of Strauss’s “Ariade Auf Naxos”, Austin Opera is  attempting to change all that. Gone are the language barrier, the ancient setting, and the over-the-top emotions, as they’ve been replaced by genuine humor and a wild, adventurous spirit.

The piece begins at a ranch in Naxos, TX, where, of all people, the Austin Chronicle’s Robert Faires, as the ranch’s manager, welcomes the cast and crew of the opera “Ariadne”, as well as a rambunctious group of comedy performers. It’s here we discover the issue at the heart of the play: Both the opera and the raunchy comedy are to be performed on the same night, all before a fireworks show (that must be performed at ten o’clock sharp!). With these snobs and slobs already at each other’s throats, another wrench is thrown into the proceedings when its discovered they must perform their piece simultaneously. As the worlds of High Art and Low Art are forced to perform in tandem, what follows is the best combination of both, a Mystery Science Theatre Style send-up of opera, that brings with it plenty of ribald thrills and raucous laughs, while still reminding audiences of the emotional fulfillment and joy that a night of the opera can bring.

Though there are many great performances in the piece, this production belongs to Jeni Houser as Zerbinetta. When she arrives, it’s as if she has wandered in from another production, and she brings such a thrilling vitality to the proceedings that keeps the action moving and the audience rapt. From her styling to her attitude, she seems to take her notes from Bettie Page, and Houser’s sassy spirit and outrageous, naughty demeanor is such a departure from what we’ve seen in opera before, especially when her English dialog mixes with the traditional German of the opera-within-an-opera itself. Even when she’s not taking center stage, her mannerism and stance never waiver; she’s living out this character at every moment.

We mustn’t forget, however, the authentic skill on display in the titular Ariadne, Alexandra LoBianco, who can belt with the best of them and adds an authenticity to the opera-within-an-opera at the piece’s heart. After all, it would be no fun to poke fun at an opera if the opera itself wasn’t worth its salt. She can still ham it up with the best of them, however, as her expressions and reactions are the stuff of legends. By the end, she finds herself in perfect harmony with the opera’s unique voice, creating moments of real beauty. Credit must also be made to her hilarious group of back-up performers, a trio of nymphs played in perfect balance by Sara Ann Mitchell, Claudia Chapa, and Megan Pachecano.

Though she loses much of the attention in the second act (and the play is lesser for it), for much of the production, the Composer, played with sensitivity by Aleks Romano, acts as the play’s heart, an up-and-coming opera writer who believes in truth and love of her art over anything else, causing her to constantly butt heads with Zerbinetta’s  free love philosophies. One of the best elements of the play is the relationship that forms between the Composer and Zerbinetta, as the two come to understand each other through their contrasting arts, creating a refreshing and rare moment of LGBT awareness.

These characters wouldn’t hit the same heights without an intriguing space to play, and luckily the design team, lead with assured skill by scenic designer Troy Hourie, has created such a place. The sturdy wood structures give the scenery an authentic, lived-in feel, while evoking the sense of rural Texas. Also in top form is costume designer Erik Teague, who combines cabaret sensuality and steampunk whimsy to evoke a very particular feel to the more ribald set of performers, while still finding lush styles to give its more operatic characters their own sense of grandeur. When combined with James Sale’s clever lighting work, they create a vibrant word that combines rusticity with ostentatiousness, as high art meets low art to create a thrilling dichotomy.

“Independent, inscrutable, and strange”, sings Zerbinetta in the play’s midsection, and though at the time she’s singing of all women’s hearts, the words could not better describe the Opera she inhabits. What Austin Opera has created with their latest production is an opera that is authentically Austin, full of a youthful energy and a independent spirit. As a few grumbling spectators could tell you, Ariadane in Naxos is not a play for everyone, but if you can tap into its zestful vigor and unique energy, you’ll find a piece of postmodern perfection.

‘The Barber of Seville’ is a funny, finely produced production of a true classic

When it comes to opera, there will always be certain barriers to entry. One of the major ones is, of course, is our own preconceptions, that operas are so often hyper-serious, stuffy affairs. There are other more serious ones, such as length (most operas do run 3 hours or more), and the language barrier (the best operas are also often in a language other than English). However, as I’ve learned through the past few years, to miss out on an opera for either of these reasons is to miss out on something truly awe-inspiring, and Austin Opera is currently providing a great entry-point, with their absolutely hilarious, beautifully choreographed production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”.

“The Barber of Seville” is a simple story, told beautifully. As the play begins we meet the Count Almaviva, who has become enraptured by the beautiful, young Rosina. Standing in his way, however, is Dr. Bartolo, Guardian of Rosina, who is making plans to marry his ward for her inheritance. Luckily for Almaviva, the titular, well-to-do barber, Figaro, has plans to help the Count out (for a price). What follows is the stuff of high farce, as Almaviva and Figaro come up with numerous plans to whisk Rosina away from her harsh guardian, though their plans always seem to fall apart.

From word one, “Barber of Seville” transports us to the streets of Spain, and much of this is due to the spectacular production design. Whether the streets of the city, to the cushy, well-detailed interiors of the doctor’s chateau, it’s obvious scenic designer Peter Dean Beck has put a lot of thought into making sure that each element of the design helps to give the feel of the period, as well as making each part seem lived-in, authentic. Also helping to make the piece feel more authentic are the gorgeous costumes designed by Susan Memmott Allred. Polished, well-designed, and stunningly detailed, the costumes make a true artistic statement in their own right, without ever feeling gaudy or over-touched. It all comes together to create a cohesive, engaging world in which our characters can weave their wondrous tale.

One surprising element of the play is how strong a character Rosina seems, especially for the period. True, she spends much of her time in the piece waiting to be rescued, but the amount of vim and venom she exhibits is admirable. Indeed, she gives as good as she gets more often than not when confronted by her Guardian, taking her own steps to plan her escape. As we learn later in the play, she’s also a woman well in touch with her sexuality, putting the moves on the disguised count throughout in very hilarious ways, adding in a refreshingly bawdy element that this critic was truly not expecting. Jennifer Rivera’s talent for expression truly makes the character, as she gives a sharp, well-nuanced performance that truly adds interesting dimension to Rosina.

Of course, this opera would be nothing without a powerful actors in the lead role, and luckily, Troy Cook cuts a fine Figaro. He first pops on to the scene with energy and bravado, and doesn’t drop a bit of it as the piece progresses. He’s one of those rare characters that’s never quite in the hero’s camp, but who we can’t help but love, his clever, conniving plans always seeming to blow up in the others’ faces. He also carries out some amazing vocal feats, as he, and the other characters, are often forced to sing overlapping verses, as well as lightning quick vocals, and Cook never skips a beat. It’s a remarkable performance, and one can only hope this amazing actor can grace Austin theaters again sooner, rather than later.

Surprisingly fun, gorgeously designed, and impeccably acted, “The Barber of Seville” is a great starting point for anyone looking to get into opera. Austin Opera continues to get better with every show, and so one can only imagine how good they will become going into their next season. I, for one, will be sure to grab a seat at their next production.

Photo Courtesy of Austin Opera

‘Romeo and Juliet’: A Romantic and thrilling performance of the Gounod Classic

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most enduring love stories in the English language, to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find a man on the street who hasn’t heard of the play, but few sources tell the story of star-crossed lovers quite as grandly or beautifully as Goudon in his French-language opera. Given a polished and glowing presentation by Austin Opera, Romeo and Juliet is a grandiose, gallant, and beautifully staged telling of Shakespeare’s most well-known tale

The opera opens with a surprising bit of action, which will be the first of many intervening styles and tones throughout the piece. There are moments for guffaws, tears, and gasps as the play unfolds, and the show never loses sight of its emotional heart. Indeed, every decision made it towards bringing out the most emotion from each scene, and the clear, soaring voices of all the actors involve help to truly create a sonic landscape that sweeps the audience away.

One of the delightful characteristics of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” is that it gives Juliet some time to shine, and here our Juliet gleams brightly thanks to the performance by Joyce El-Khoury. El-Khourny plays the role as a kind of celebration of the joys of youth, full of awkwardness and innocence, but also bursting with youthful exuberance, giving her scenes a vibrancy and honesty that make them true highlights, in particular her joyful song after the grad fete in Act I.

We mustn’t forget the large role played by Stephen Costello’s Romeo, whose brave and dashing rendition is tempered nicely with moments of real pathos. With its extended final scenes, this opera can become a drag in the wrong hands, but Costello’s Romeo keeps the scenes moving well thanks to his very rich voice and sensitive performance. His chemistry with El-Khoury is undeniable, as the couple bring real light to several scenes, in particular the play’s famous balcony scene, where it’s hard not to fall in love with the couple yourself.

Romance and Daring are on fine display in this rendition of Gounod’s famous opera, with skilled actors bringing real chemistry to the main roles, and the supporting cast doing their part to keep the action fun and thrilling. All this is underscored wonderfully by the orchestra, led with a deft hand by long-time conductor Richard Buckley. It’s the perfect play for getting you into the romantic spirit, just in time for Valentine’s Day, and the perfect treat for a young couple in love.

Austin Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” runs roughly 3 hours, and is playing through February 1st, 2015 at the Long Center. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Austin Opera’s website at austinopera.org

Photo Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography