By: David Browning
I was happy to attend a performance of Juilliard Opera’s double bill of one-act operas on Friday night, April 29. [Juilliard Opera is part of the newly expanded Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard, encompassing voice and opera education at all undergraduate and graduate levels at Juilliard, including the former Juilliard Opera Center.] Many fine singers of today and yesterday have come from Juilliard, so I was quite looking forward to this.
L’Heure Espagnole by Mr. Ravel–he of “Bolero” fame–is a sultry confection with lavish orchestration and rich harmonies. The story is simple. Hubby is away all day and wifey wants to play, but the big oaf waiting around for hubby is a hindrance–until wifey sees that he is more desirable than either of the lovers waiting in the clocks…er, I mean wings.
The star of this opera is Concepción, sung beautifully by Cecilia Hall. Voluptuously costumed in a passionate red, Miss Hall showed us the frustration of a young woman bored with her dotty old husband. Andreas Aroditis, as Ramiro, the man who eventually strikes Concepción’s fancy, portrayed the good-natured laborer with charm and affability. His is a light lyric baritone of pleasing quality. He certainly has the looks to capture Concepción’s attention. We expect to see him featured on the web site Barihunks some day soon.
Director Tomer Zvulun’s notes in the program made clear his intention to highlight the over-the-top passions of both operas–lust in L’Heure Espagnole and greed in Gianni Schicchi–in the style of Italian film director Federico Fellini. L’Heure Espagnole’s luxuriant music and langorous atmosphere made the passions of Concepción and her suitors seem almost leisurely, compared to the greed-fueled antics of the Donato family in Gianni Schicchi. The story of Gianni Schicchi is familiar even to those who don’t know the opera. When family patriarch Buoso Donato dies, leaving his estate to a monastery, the family members conspire with the aid of Schicchi to have a fraudulent new will created and recorded, but Schicchi outsmarts them all and makes sure he inherits the bulk of the estate himself.
To my mind, the action of Gianni Schicchi looked a lot like a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1970s. That’s a good thing. I’ve stated publicly that I find such updating rarely adds much to a production, but in this case it did. The characters were clearly defined with the aid of the Victoria Tzykun’s costumes and Mr. Zvulun’s direction.
The star of any Gianni Schicchi is Schicchi himself, sung Friday night by baritone Alexander Hajek. Deligthfully smarmy as one of Concepción’s lovers in L’Heure Espagnole, he was all gritty charm and authority, like a Brooklyn cab driver, in Gianni Schicchi. Although his bio and his singing bring to mind more lyric baritone qualities, Mr. Hajek seemed very comfortable–gleeful, in fact–acting a basso buffo role. The vocal disconnect is likely what caused the fatigue a trained ear could detect once or twice toward the end of the evening. I choose to remember Mr. Hajek’s joyful acting and charm more than the few negligible vocal glitches. I expect to hear more of him in the future.
Other cast members deserve mention. Lacey Jo Benter, as Zita, was a fearless matriarch with a voice to match. Whether sobbing over fortunes lost or using her feminine wiles (along with Catherine Hancock’s Nella and Carla Jablonski’s La Ciesca) to try to influence Schicchi, Miss Benter held the focus and the grateful ear of the audience. One predicts good things for her. Tenor Daniel T. Curran, also one of Concepción’s lovers in L’Heure Espagnole, was Rinuccio, the young lover of Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta. Rinuccio suits him better than Gonzalve, but from time to time one desired a slightly heftier sound than Mr. Curran’s pleasant lyric tenor for Rinuccio. Jung Nan Yoon, who sang Lauretta, also has a lovely instrument, but seemed overpowered by the orchestra. Andreas Aroditis, Ramiro in L’Heure Espagnole, made a delightful appearance as the notary.
I must once again mention the costumes. Although I wasn’t sure about the 70s look in L’Heure Espagnole, I was won over in Gianni Schicchi. Donald Eastman’s set design also worked quite effectively, using the same set with different props and furniture for the two operas. The lighting design of Jane Cox very effectively gave us the light of a hot day in Spain in L’Heure Espagnole, and provided several comic effects for Gianni Schicchi.
Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson ably led the wonderful Juilliard Orchestra through both scores, and my only complaint is that the orchestra overpowered the singers at times in both operas.
I came away Friday evening satisfied with an evening of fine operatic entertainment and a few names to watch for in coming years.