Aspen VIII: Sondheim and Mahler Rule

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (8): Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, plus a stunning Rückert Lieder from Michelle DeYoung, a lively program from Gil Shaham and friends, and lapidary piano playing from Ann Schein. 27.7.2012 (HS)

When Robert Spano signed on to be the music director of the Aspen Music Festival, it’s doubtful he envisaged conducting an all-student orchestra in the pit of a 500-seat opera house for Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. But on the energetic production’s opening night Thursday he conducted with irresistible momentum, framing the student singers and providing the glue that kept a mostly exciting cast tightly focused. The Aspen Opera Theater Center triumphed in one of the great scores (some would say the greatest) of the American musical theater.

On stage, bass-baritone Noel Bouley inhabited the title role, a murderous barber, with frightening precision and ease while mezzo soprano Stephanie Zadownik, all flashing eyes and pinpoint comedic timing, made his co-conspirator Mrs. Lovett into a magnetic character. In both cases, it was wonderful to hear all of the music from voices capable of singing all the notes. Bouley, who was a fully fleshed-out Falstaff last summer, has the stage presence and supple voice to make Sweeney a riveting character. Their scenes together were the highlights, especially their pun-filled duet “A Little Priest” in Act I. Zadownik took a while to settle into the tempo of her opening song, “The Worst Pies in London,” but her “By the Sea” in Act II was a musical gem.

As the evil Judge Turpin, David Salsbery Fry rolled out an unctuous bass sound and was especially good in the “Pretty Women” duets with Bouley. The young love interests —soprano Julia Dawson and tenor Rocco Rupolo — sang all notes with rich sound, even if Dawson veered a little too operatic in Johanna’s light operetta music and Rupolo came up short on inflection. The two other tenors stole their scenes, Patrick Kilbride as a flamboyantly nasty Beadle Bamford, all high notes and grease, and Tyson Miller as Pirelli, the “Italian” barber selling a phony baldness remedy to send-ups of bel canto operatic music. Another tenor, Taylor Walsh as the simpleminded Tobias, acted the part with winning specificity, even if his voice betrayed him in a couple of exposed moments.

Director David Berkeley’s decision to set the piece in an insane asylum as a play within a play produced uneven results. Aside from too much distracting twitching from the chorus wandering around, once the story got rolling it didn’t matter much. Another element that needed more work involves amplification. Sondheim wrote the score for miked singers, but the levels Thursday seemed unnecessarily high, made worse by the wide difference in volume between the principals wearing head microphones and the chorus unaided. Their words count too in the recurring “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

In the end, both the big moments and the incredible sweep of this work—and the undeniable value of operatically trained voices singing this music—carried the day. The run continues through Monday.

The week started with sensational singing by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder in the Monday evening chamber music program in Harris Hall. Conductor Scott Terrell drew sensitive playing from an ad hoc 14-piece orchestra that painted Mahler’s colors for DeYoung’s beautifully shaped lines and impeccable and expressive diction. Each of the five songs created its own atmosphere, the most arresting being “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a lush love song among Mahler’s most heartfelt.

The music in the other song cycle on the program, a setting of Shakespeare sonnets by Eugene Drucker (violinist in the Emerson Quartet), hardly differentiated among the poems, which made it seem tedious. Joyce Yang played the piano part of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer” with idiomatic style and crisp articulation; Robert Chen was right with her, although his tone had a hard edge.

Tuesday’s Harris Hall celebration of the Aspen Center for Physics’ 50th year featured three well-known musical offspring of physicists at the center — Stefan Jackiw, Gil Shaham and his sister Orli. The highlight was an incendiary Mendelssohn Octet in E flat in which Shaham and fellow violinist Jackiw led a gang of faculty stars in a taut, exuberantly played performance. Orli and Jackiw contributed silky tone and deft playing to to Mozart’s Piano and Violin Sonata in B flat, as Orli negotiated the score with elegance. She did her best work on Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Op. 118, playing with bracing clarity and caressing the softer moments beautifully, especially in the final two pieces, the Romance in F major and the Intermezzo in E flat minor.

Ann Schein’s piano recital Wednesday night in Harris Hall provided a tasty sampler of this pianist’s strengths: lapidary Chopin, first and foremost, but also Elliott Carter from the heart, dazzling Ravel and Debussy and the fireworks of Liszt and Rachmaninov. A member of the faculty since 1984, Schein has been performing around the world since 1950. She still looks honestly surprised at the warm response she gets from audiences. Wednesday’s group responded with the most enthusiasm to the second-half lineup of Ravel’s Sonatine and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, played with utmost clarity and sparkle, and not a hint of saccharine, and Liszt’s finger-busting tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, which seemed to dance off the stage.

Harvey Steiman