Aspen 4: Joshua Guerrero as Gounod’s Roméo, and the Emersons Win the Week in Chamber Music

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (4): Barber, Beethoven, Bermel, Brahms, Bruch, Dvořák, Gounod, Iyer, Liebermann, Mendelssohn, Ravel. Aspen, Colorado. 13-16.7.2015 (HS)

Chamber music, July 13
Benedict Music Tent
Bruch: Piano Quintet in G minor (posthumous)
Derek Bermel: Soul Garden
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor
Emerson Quartet, July 14
Harris Hall
Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Paul Watkins (cello)
Ravel: String Quartet in F major
Lowell Liebermann: String Quartet No. 5
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Dvořák: String Quartet in F major “American”

Recital, July 15
Harris Hall
Jennifer Koh (violin), Shai Wosner (piano)
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major
Vijay Iyer: Bridgetower Fantasy
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major “Kreutzer”
Opera, July 16
Wheeler Opera House
Gounod: Roméo et Juliette
Juliette: Pureum Jo
Roméo: Joshua Guerrero
The Duke: Kevin Gary Smith
Frère Laurent: Isaac Kim
Count Capulet: I Sheng Huang
Gertrude: Noragh Devlin
Tybalt: Carlton Moe
Paris: Armando Contreras
Gregorio: Nathaniel Hill

Mercutio: Michael Hanley
Stéphano: Amber Frasquelle
Benvolio: Alexander McKissick

There was much to like about Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the first opera of the season for the all-student Aspen Opera Theatre Center. On Thursday at Wheeler Opera House, it featured terrific-sounding tenor Joshua Guerrero as Roméo, idiomatic and well-balanced conducting by George Manahan, excellent choruses and several fine turns in smaller roles.

Guerrero, who sang Don José in Carmen here in Aspen last season, has already sung leading roles at the L.A. Opera as a member of its young artists program. From the opening scene he displayed a sense of assurance, ringing high notes, and fine phrasing.

Manahan led a 21-piece orchestra with a supple rendering that never overpowered the singers. An opening night sense of nervousness rippled through the cast, which may account for why Pureum Jo, a soprano with great presence as Juliette, took the better part of the first half to get past an unfortunate stridency in her opening aria and the famous Waltz Song.

Once she got those out of way she pushed less and trusted her lovely lyric sound. The balcony scene, one of several treasured duets in this melodic feast of an opera, had real heart and a good deal more delicacy. Guerrero got the scene rolling with an “Ah! Lève-toi soleil” sung with ease, and with a ping in his sound. The wedding scene, the bedroom scene and especially the death scene in the crypt went off more smoothly, although the electricity never quite reached high wattage.

Of special note in the smaller roles, Amber Frasquelle as Stéphano, Roméo’s page, shaped a beautiful “turtle dove” arietta to taunt the Capulets and bring on the duels that take Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s lives. As Tybalt, Carlton Moe may not have had a full-fledged aria, but he added strong presence and solid singing.

Edward Berkeley trusted the story and the music, imposing no directorial glosses on the opera’s simplified take on the Shakespeare play. John Kasarda’s scenic design made creative use of poles, a sliding platform and over the stage, spaced globe lights, which changed color with the scenes. A rolling staircase doubled as Juliette’s balcony, a street scene, and the background of the crypt in the final scene.

In chamber music, the highlight was the annual Harris Hall visit from the Emerson Quartet. The prime beneficiary of their trademark precision and unity was a beautifully realized, rhythmically vital and expressive Dvořák “American” String Quartet. They reveled in the bouncy pentatonic phrases, which may or may not have been inspired by vernacular music the composer heard during his stay in the United States in the 1890s. Cellist Paul Watkins and violinist Eugene Drucker injected plenty of warmth in the theme that starts the bittersweet slow movement, but the Emerson’s approach kept a bright comfortable tone in the rest.

They applied a gentle touch to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, in an unsentimental reading that let the harmonic beauty emerge clearly. Precisely played, Ravel’s harmonically jazz-inflected String Quartet flew by without much impact, the moving parts not quite finding the thread, but Lowell Liebermann’s restless String Quartet No. 5 was haunting.

Jennifer Koh’s recital Wednesday in Harris Hall, with Shai Wosner on piano, was part of the violinist’s project pairing Beethoven sonatas with a contemporary works commissioned for these occasions. The  scales and gestures in Vijay Iyer’s Bridgetower Fantasy might have alluded to Beethoven, but its screechy sounds made it hard to discern what else might have tied this work musically with the master’s violin sonatas No. 1 and 9 “Kreutzer.” Koh’s rough, overly dramatic approach to Beethoven might have been inspired by Bridgetower, but there was little beauty and not much refinement to the music making.

Wosner provided the musical glue for Paul Kantor (violin) and Desmond Hoebig (cello) in Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, the highlight of Monday’s chamber program in the music tent.

Harvey Steiman

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