Category Archives: Opera and Theater

Review: Atlanta Opera’s “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” makes for emotionally powerful drama

by Mark Gresham | 11 APR 2018

Ben Edquist as Manfred Lewin and Tom Key as Gad Beck. [photo: Jeff Roffman]

Ben Edquist as Manfred Lewin and Tom Key as Gad Beck. [photo: Jeff Roffman]

The Atlanta Opera is halfway through their latest Discovery Series production, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain,” by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. I attended on Friday night, the second performance of the production’s eight-show run. Four performances remain, this coming Thursday through Sunday, April 12 through 15. Presented in collaboration with Theatrical Outfit, the performances take place in that company’s home venue, the 200 seat Balzer Theater at Herren’s.

“Out of Darkness: Two Remain” is comprised of two 45-minute acts, each telling the story of an aging Holocaust survivor, each a kind of “ghost story” where the unresolved memories of their experiences and persons who died continue to haunt them.

Act I tells the story of poet and lyricist Krystyna Zywulska (soprano Maria Kanyova), who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner, rather than for being a Jew – a fact which he successfully hid from her Nazi captors. She is confronted by memories of her of her younger self who survived Auschwitz, nicknamed Krysia (soprano Bryn Holdsworth), and friends in the camp who did not: Zosia and Edka (mezzo-sopranos Elise Quagliata and Gina Perregrino), and the late-arriving Mariola (soprano Jasmine Habersham), a Jewish woman who immediately recognizes Krysia as childhood friend from Łódź, and calls her by her real name, Sonia Landau, in front of Wala, a “kapo” – a prisoner functionary (Funktionshäftling) assigned by the SS to supervise and control other prisoners (a brief role also portrayed by Quagliata).

The encounter with Mariola creates immediate peril for Krysia, in which she must deny her former identity and hr childhood friend. It’s the ghost of Mariola who haunts Krystyna the most, and who is the first character to sing, wordlessly, at the beginning of the opera. In the end, Krystyna reaffirms that she is no longer Sonia Landau, but Krystyna Zywulska – and that is why she still lives to see another day.

The aging Krystyna Zywulska and Krysia, the ghost of her younger self (sopranos Maria Kanyova and Bryn Holdsworth). [photo: Jeff Roffman]

The aging Krystyna Zywulska and Krysia, the ghost of her younger self (sopranos Maria Kanyova and Bryn Holdsworth). [photo: Jeff Roffman]

Act II is the account of German homosexual Gad Beck (actor Tom Key), whose first true love was the poet Manfred Lewin (baritone Ben Edquist), executed in Auschwitz at age 19 along with his entire family. Although he keeps a book of Manfred’s poems in a side table drawer, Gad tries but cannot forget, and is visited one night by the ghost of his young lover, and must reconcile himself to accepting that love and his memories of Manfred. He does as he and the ghost of Manfred embrace in a close dance as the lights fade.

That seemed like it would be the end of the opera, but a Finale follows, involving the whole cast of both acts, that comes across less as epilogue than as anthem of defiance and solidarity. Key, who has only spoken dialogue all night, is the first to break into song, delivered directly to the audience, reprising a tune and text from the first act, in which the rest of he cast quickly join him:

Take off your striped clothes, kick off your clogs.
Stand with me, hold your shaved head high.
The song of freedom upon our lips will never, never die.

Although two separate stories, with protagonists that are unconnected except by Auschwitz and the Holocaust, there is much synergy between the two Acts. That synergy becomes fused in the opera’s final, collective anthem and it does something unusual for 21st-century opera: it risks being remembered by the audience as they depart.

Whether emulating folk-song and dance of Ashkenazic Jews, or the decadent atmosphere of a Berlin nightclub, or eerily adapting waltzes by Chopin and Johann Strauss into the sonic thread, Heggie’s music colors the drama and amplifies it. The orchestra is a sextet – essentially a “Pierrot ensemble” of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, with the addition of a contrabass. The Atlanta Opera Orchestra principal players, ensconced in a narrow passageway behind a scrim at the back of the stage, performed skillfully under the baton of conductor Joseph Mechavich.

Four dancers (Miriam Golumb, Nicole Johnson, Brandon Nguyen and Joshua Rackliffe) round out the cast, portraying multiple silent characters important to the drama as well as executing the evocative choreography by John McFall. Producing director Tomer Zvulun balanced the creative forces onstage, emphasizing the opera’s strong theatrical elements, which suited the Balzer Theater’s space and Christopher Dills’ pragmatic scenic design, drawing from the complete cast of players a solid ensemble performance.

On his website, composer Heggie describes this Atlanta Opera production as the “premiere of revised opera and official professional opera company world premiere.” Like many operas, it has taken time for the work to evolve to this stage. “Out of Darkness” had its beginnings as three separate theatrical song cycles: “For a Look and a Touch” (2007), “Another Sunrise” (2012) and “Farewell, Auschwitz (2013).As none of these alone made for a complete theatrical evening, Heggie and Scheer worked them over to create the first “Out of Darkness” opera.

That first version was commissioned by the concert series Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2016 at the Nordstrom Recital Hall in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, directed by Erich Parce and conducted by Joseph Mechavich. Since then revisions have been made, with a trial run of four performances only two months ago February 8 through 11 by Peabody Chamber Opera of Baltimore’s John Hopkins University. Subsequent further revisions were made just after; vocal scores used by the Atlanta Opera bear the date “2/18/2018.” In the process, the title of the new version was expanded to “Out of Darkness: Two Remain.”

In its current form, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” proved an effective, well-crafted, emotionally complex evening of agitprop music theater that makes its poignant point to those interested and willing to be moved by its deeply heartfelt message.

Review: ASO artist in residence Russell Thomas enthralls with captivating Ebenezer concert [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 10 Feb 2015

Russell Thomas has a third solo concert scheduled in April. (Photo by Trevor Cochlin)

On Saturday afternoon, tenor Russell Thomas — the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural artist in residence this season — performed a free recital at Ebenezer Baptist Church …
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Year in Review: For the Atlanta Symphony, it was a year divided and a time to assess the future [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 2 Jan 2015

ASO musicians were locked out of Symphony Hall for almost three months. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

For Atlanta’s classical music scene, the latter part of 2014 was dominated by the nine-week lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center …
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Preview: The Atlanta Opera’s Walter Huff on the piano, singing and building the perfect chorus [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 12 Sep 2014

The Atlanta Opera Chorus with Huff at the piano. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Opera is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Walter Huff as its chorus master with three performances of operatic choruses tonight and Sunday at Emory …
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Review: ASO and Chorus round out the season with an epic bang performing Verdi’s “Aida” [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 06 Jun 2014

Robert Spano (center) with Latonia Moore to his right, cast in the title role of Aida. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

This is the final week of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2013–14 season’s classical subscription concerts at Symphony Hall, and the production is a biggie: Giuseppe …
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Review: The Atlanta Opera brings flair and fun to the delightful strains of “Barber of Seville” [ArtsATL]

by Mark Gresham | 29 Apr 2014

Irene Roberts as Rosina with Sidney Outlaw (in orange) as Figaro. (Photos by Ken Howard)

The Atlanta Opera opened its final production of the season, Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” on Saturday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. …
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Conductor Claudio Abbado dies at age 80

Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado   (www.ilpost.it)

[Reuters] MILAN – “Claudio Abbado, who decided to become a conductor after hearing a concert at La Scala at the age of eight and went on to lead the Milan opera company and top orchestras for more than half a century, has died aged 80, La Scala said on Monday. …” • Read the article by Isla Binnie at REUTERS (US Edition, Mon Jan 20, 2014 11:36am EST)

A weekend with Puccini present, both large and small: Atlanta Opera and Peachtree String Quartet

by Mark Gresham | 8 Oct 2013

Peachtree Sreing Quartet

Peachtree String Quartet: Christopher Pulgram, John Meisner, Jennifer Humphreys and Yang-Yoon Kim

This past weekend the music of Puccini turned up in both large and small contexts. The most obvious was the opening night Atlanta Opera’s production of Tosca on Saturday, October 5. I’m not a frequent attendee of opera, but I enjoyed the show even if less critically than colleague James Paulk who reviewed the performance for ArtsATL. The remaining three performances of Tosca are tonight at 7:30pm, Friday, October 11 at 8pm and Sunday afternoon, October 13, 2013 at 3pm.

Tomer Zvulun, the AO’s new general and artistic director, spoke to the audience in advance of curtain time to thank donors and so forth, but the most interesting part was when he talked about how about 200 people were involved in this live production, onstage, backstage and in the pit, and made a point of saying that it all happens here, “not streamed from somewhere else,” which brought forth a semi-gasp and subsequent rumble amongst some of the audience in the front rows, as he was obviously referring to the Met’s internet broadcasts. Some local New York-ophiles evidently took umbrage. But Zvulun is right on target. I express it this way: A great city does not “deserve” great art, it creates great art.

The next afternoon (Sunday, October 6) Peachtree String Quartet performed the opening concert of their 2013-14 season at what one might call their “home venue,” the Garden Hills Recreation Center, uptown just southeast of the Buckhead business district in the quiet Garden Hills residential community. The quartet (violinists Christopher Pulgram and John Meisner, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Jennifer Humphreys) are all members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

There again was Puccini, this time represented by his six-minute elegy “Crisantemi” (“Chrysanthemums”) on a program wirh Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet on B-flat major (Op. 76, No.4), Hugo Wolf’s brief “Italian Serenade” and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 13).

While not a picture perfect performance, the quartet has come a long way since their formal debut last season at Garden Hills. Sunday’s concert was a happy musical experience. The group has a good, consistent following and small venue itself was pretty much full. With a good foundation of audience support, one can only look forward to their continued development as an important local chamber ensemble.

The quartet is scheduled to perform on at the Toco Hill-Avis G. Williams Library this coming Monday, Oct. 14, on behalf of an ASO outreach partnership with the DeKalb County Libraries. That will the first of a series of free chamber concerts by ASO musicians that will take place at libraries across the county, running one performance monthly through May.

Jennifer Higdon completes her new opera, “Cold Mountain”

Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon reports that she has completed her new opera, “Cold Mountain.” The announcement appeared in a post to her Facebook profile yesterday.

Based upon the best-selling 1997 historical novel by Charles Frazier, the opera was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera and the Opera Philadelphia. Set in North Carolina near the end of the American Civil War, the story centers around W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate army, and his journey to reunite with the love of his life, Ada Monroe.

Higdon says that the opera took her 20 months to compose, working 8 hours daily. In describing her immediate feelings upon completing the work, she wrote, “When I put the double bar on, it literally felt like Ada was the last to leave the room, and she closed the door behind her as she went out. I was sitting there alone, listening to the silence. Not sure whether to laugh, smile, or weep.”

Higdon was partnered with librettist Gene Scheer on the project. The opera will feature baritone Nathan Gunn in the role of W.P. Inman. Santa Fe Opera will perform the world premiere during the summer of 2015 and the Opera Philadelphia will perform the work in February, 2016.

Argentine soprano Florencia Fabris suffers aneurysm during Verdi’s “Requiem” and dies after surgery

by Mark Gresham | 2 Sep 2013

Florencia Fabris

Argentine soprano Florencia Fabris died yesterday after an emergency operation in the city of Mendoza, where she was taken by ambulance after suffering an aneurysm during a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Auditorio Juan Victoria in San Juan, Argentina.

The young singer of 38 years was the mother of two children, ages seven and nine. She arrived Friday in San Juan from Buenos Aires to perform the “Requiem” for the first time. ArtsJournal blogger Norman Lebrecht reported earlier today that Fabris had “felt bad during the performance, but refused to leave the stage.”

Fabris was treated by doctors who witnessed the performance and recommended moving her to the nearest hospital where she was diagnosed with a stroke. By decision of her family, the singer was then taken by ambulance to a hospital in Mendoza, over 100 mikes away, where she was operated on successfully, but after surgery suffered another stroke which caused her death.

Fabris began singing as a child in the Children’s Choir of Teatro Colón under the direction of Valdo Sciammarella and graduated in opera singing at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy. She has sung leading soprano roles in operas such as Il trovatore, Madama Butterfly, Francesca da Rimini, Suor Angelica, I Pagliacci and Don Carlos.

In the YouTube video below, Fabris sings the Czárdás from Die Fledermaus, translated into the vernacular Argentine Spanish, at an outdoor gala with conductor Mario Perusso and the Mar del Plata Symphony Orchestra on January 22, 2011.