Tenor Thomas Cooley, Baritone John Brancy & Maestro Paul Goodwin
We had a lot of fun last night at the Tuesday Main Concert — “A Night at the Opera.” In the spirit of the Marx Brothers, there was some slapstick silliness, such as in scenes from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Leonard Bernsten’s Trouble in Tahiti, but it was balanced by moments of more serious drama in arias from Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Tannhaüser. Our affable host for the evening was David Gordon, whose perspective on all things vocal, choral and operatic is, as always, astonishing in its ability to enlighten and entertain us (and he had edited the super titles which made our opera experience all that more comprehensible and enjoyable). We also had an opportunity to hear the Festival Orchestra, directed by Maestro Paul Goodwin, the Festival Chorale and Chorus, and, most importantly, the vocal stars of the evening, sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Linda Lee Jones, mezzos Meg Bragle and Virginia Warnken Kelsey, baritones John Brancy, Jonathon Woody and Tim Krol.
The evening opened with arias from Handel’s Julio Cesare sung with great feeling by Mhairi Lawson and Meg Bragle — these ran the gamut from a “rage aria” to a tender reconciliation in Caro! – Bella! Although we miss the staging, and we have to admit that Meg Bragle, being more petite than Mhairi, is not always convincing as a man, the singers gave it their all and ended up being quite successful in creating a plausible illusion.
Next we heard an excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, which is not about Tahiti at all, but rather a satire on post-war life in the suburbs featuring a bickering couple arguing over trivial matters. There is interesting level of irony here, because Bernstein enjoyed mocking the American dream of life in the suburbs in little white cottages, an hour from the city by train. He could well afford to do so, for he was at the time living in luxury in the Osborne Apartment House at 205 W. 57th Street, a venerable, high-ceilinged, thick-walled, 19th century apartment building, where you could make music any time of day or night without disturbing your neighbors (among his neighbors in the same building were basso Lorenzo Alvary and pianist Gary Graffman). Since his home was across the street from Carnegie Hall and only steps from the Carnegie Deli, the Joseph Patelson Music House, Steinway Hall and the offices of CBS-Columbia Records, life in the “Burbs” was something Bernstein tended to be very snooty about. The scenes that unfolded in front of our eyes and ears were appropriately jazzy and very entertaining.
The plot of Cosi fan tutte is ridiculous, and as David Gordon pointed out, it would never make a successful transition to a Hollywood film. But then, this is opera, where anything, no matter how silly, seems to work. Mhairi Lawson, Meg Bragle, Thomas Cooly, and John Brancy gave us a lot of pleasure in their changes of costume, madcap antics and satisfying singing.
In addition to a rousing concert performance by the Festival Orchestra of the overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, by far the most moving moments of the evening were the scenes from Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Tannhaüser. The music here was so powerful, and the performances so convincing, that I found myself not missing the staging. Well, actually there was a bit of staging as members of the Chorale at one point in the Wagner entered from the rear of the theater holding illuminated scores. It was very effective.
Sitting in Row Z, about as far as you can get from the stage, it was often difficult to hear the singers over the orchestration. However, in the end we had to say this evening was both entertaining and very moving.