Aspen 12: A Grand Aspen Finale, with Offenbach, Mozart, and Wagner


United StatesUnited States Various composers, Aspen Music Festival [12] (HS)

Wheeler Opera House, 16 Aug

Offenbach – Les contes d’Hoffmann

Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Aspen Opera Center/George Manahan (conductor)

Hoffmann — Roy Hage
Olympia — Sydney Baedke
Antonia — Elizabeth Novella
Giulietta — Alyssa Dessoye
Nicklausse/The Muse — Lindsay Metzger
Voice of Antonia’s mother — Noragh Devlin
Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto — Hunter Enoch
Spalanzani — Angel Vargas
Crespel — Young-Hyun Kim
Andres/Cochenille/Pitichinaccio — Alexander Gmeinder
Frantz — Christopher Wolf

Director — Edward Berkeley
Scenic Design — John Kasarda
Lighting Design — Kate Ashton

Benedict Music Tent, 17 Aug

Lise de la Salle (piano), Seraphic Fire, Aspen Chamber Symphony/Xian Zhang (conductor)
Ravel — Piano Concerto in G major
Mozart — Requiem in D minor

Benedict Music Tent, 19 Aug

Tamara Wilson (soprano), Ryan McKinny (baritone), Aspen Festival Orchestra/Robert Spano (conductor)
Wagner — Scenes from Die Walküre
BerliozSymphonie fantastique

Big music requiring an outsized orchestra from Berlioz and Wagner brought the Aspen Music Festival’s regular season to a sonorous close Sunday in Benedict Music Tent, but the most impressive work came from less massive forces on Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert.

The Friday program introduced two musical entities to Aspen we should only be seeing more—the Florida-based chorale Seraphic Fire and the energetic Chinese-born American conductor Xian Zhang.

Seraphic Fire blazed through a magnificent Mozart Requiem and made a compelling case for music lovers to stick around the festival into next week, when they perform two more concerts. The group has been teaching 40 young voices in a new professional choral institute, some of whom expanded the group’s 17 voices to provide the necessary heft to fill the tent with gorgeous sound.

Zhang is currently music director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She made an impression with big gestures, clear and precise, that brought out just the right balance of rigor and flexibility.

In the first performance in Aspen of this repertory-standard work in decades (artistic director Asadour Santourian reckons it must have been done during the early 1970s to mid-1980s), everything clicked. The voices blended seamlessly, and 18 of the chorus members stepped forward individually and in groups to take on the solos, each with remarkably personal sound and presence. The connection with the orchestra, through Zhang, was palpable.

Together they plugged the Mozart into a high-voltage socket. They made each turn of phrase special, not by blasting away — although climaxes lacked nothing in power — but by shaping rhythm, textures, dynamics and the Catholic Mass text into something that came alive.

(On Monday, Seraphic Fire sings alone, and on Wednesday, a Fauré Requiem includes its students, both at Harris Hall.)

Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert, with pianist Lise de la Salle, who could not quite match Zhang’s crisp approach. She played it dutifully rather than soulfully, even in the rollicking finale. The lovely Adagio at the center, which should ooze seductively out of the piano, went by with little effect. Only the English horn solo caught the sinuousness of the tune.

Sunday’s finale fielded an orchestra that included six harps and a rarely heard (around here) contrabass trombone, the latter (played by principal bass trombone John Rojak) adding a distinctive timbre to the trombone quintet and two tubas in the final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Music director Robert Spano focused on the marvelous range of sonorities in Wagner’s orchestra for the final confrontation between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Baritone Ryan McKinny and soprano Tamara Wilson, once students at the Aspen Opera Center, proved why they have fashioned major careers with beautifully shaped singing and attention to text. If Spano sometimes allowed the orchestra to step on McKinny’s robust sound, the themes and leitmotifs got their due.

To usher out the season, Spano spun similarly rich sounds from the big ensemble in Berlioz’s colorful Symphonie fantastique. If the bigger, broader sections lacked the required swagger, despite the heroic efforts by the entire percussion section, the quieter moments shone through admirably, especially the individual contributions of each woodwind principal.

Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann demands a big cast of staunch singers who can sketch characters quickly, fashion arias and ensembles deftly, and balance drama with touches of the macabre and sly humor. There wasn’t a weak link in the second of three performances (on Thursday) by the Aspen Opera Center in the Wheeler Opera House.

The all-student cast, orchestra and crew came through with a thoroughly professional performance — from the title role, sung by tenor Roy Hage, to the smallest cameo. Conductor George Manahan, for whom this music is his own personal neighborhood, brought out French stylistic details that registered the drama and inventiveness of this late 19th-century score (the final touches completed after the composer’s death in 1880).

The role of Hoffmann is what opera veterans call a ‘big sing’. A key part of the prologue, epilogue and all three acts, he acts as both storyteller and protagonist. He never lost his poise, singing with unerring sweetness and clarity, even if he backed off on some heroic climaxes to preserve his voice.

The tales of the title are the back story to why he broods in Luther’s Tavern while his inamorata, the opera singer Stella, stars in Don Giovanni next door. Hoffmann is a writer and poet who entertains a lusty men’s chorus with the story of his three great loves — the mechanical doll Olympia, the sickly soprano Antonia and the opportunistic courtesan Giulietta — each of which get a full act. Without losing the essential drama, the cast captured the humor in these sendups of common operatic tropes and had fun with the spooky side of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the model for the title role.

Edward Berkeley, who heads up the Opera Center, must be credited with directing all this with an eye toward the telling interpersonal moments. If the staging sidestepped traditional effects (such as a painting that comes to life and a mirror that doesn’t reflect), a focus on the key elements of the human drama more than made up for it. Each individual on the often-crowded stage had something to add to the mix.

Chief among the cast for sheer vocal presence and power were mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, voicing Hoffmann’s mentor/muse Nicklausse with a creamy sound and cutting an androgynous figure in a three-piece suit, and bass-baritone Hunter Enoch, rock-solid vocally as all four of Hoffmann’s nemeses, an oddly shaped red hair and beard identifying him as he lurked around the edges of every scene. He created a demonic aura every time he stepped forward.

Among the three great loves, soprano Elizabeth Novella dazzled with rich sound and impressive intensity as Antonia, who’s told not to sing but does anyway (spoiler alert: to her death). Mezzo-soprano Alyssa Dessoye managed to seem both cunning and subservient as she pointed her lush sound to Giulietta. As Olympia, the mechanical doll, Sydney Baedke deployed a light, lyric soprano and enough coloratura to make it work.

In peripheral roles, two standouts were tenor Alexander Gmeinder, scooting around the stage on a rolling stool as Cochenille in the Olympia act and interjecting vocally with precision, and tenor Christopher Wolf as the comic-relief deaf butler Frantz in the Antonia act. Clad in what can best be described as a rumpled gray suit, he drew guffaws, and sang his calling-card aria with panache.

As Antonia’s mother, mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin, who delivered a fine comic turn as Berta in Rossini’s Barber of Seville earlier this summer, completed a powerful vocal trio (with Novella and Enoch) in the climax of the second act. Ensemble singing was strong throughout, especially the sextet that tops off the Giulietta act, a textbook example of characterful singing that transcended the notes on the page.

Harvey Steiman

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