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An Operatic Weekend in Cincinnati

Charles H. Parsons
Posted: Oct 29, 2012 - 8:13:32 PM in reviews_2012

Kara Shay Thomson and Marco Panuccio
The weekend of October 26-28 in Cincinnati was a cornucopia of music events, truly a musical feast.

Cincinnati Ballet was on stage. The Wagner Society of Cincinnati presented a Musicale, and The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company performed “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titus Anronicus” The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music filled one of its stages with the musical “Chess.” The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra played an all-Beethoven concert, and further north, Dayton Opera performed “Lucia di Lammermoor.” What an embarrassment of riches! There is only so much one can attend!

The Constella Festival of Music and Fine Arts is in full swing (through Nov. 6), their current offerings including “Opera Appassionata” (Friday night, Oct. 26). It was rainy, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center looked dark and gloomy, more forbidding than ever. But in Harriet Tubman Theater inside, all was bright warmth, as if part of Italy had suddenly been moved to Cincinnati. Two of Cincinnati's favorite singers, both internationally renowned artists, soprano Kara Shay Thomson and tenor Marco Panuccio, delighted the audience with a program of Italian opera favorites.

Their accompanist, the highly respected Warren Jones, brought a touch of German and Polish Romanticism and pianistic virtuosity to the program with the Brahms Rhapsody in G minor, and the four Op. 67 Chopin Mazurkas. But it was the two singers that thrilled the audience. Panuccio led off with two sparkling Italian songs by Francesco Paolo Tosti, countered by Thomson's two Lieder by Joseph Marx. When the two came together for the Act 1 “Love Duet” from Puccini's “Madama Butterfly,” the audience listened in rapt ecstasy as the singers soared through the music.

Sumptuous is the word for Thomson's glorious voice. It's huge in scale, warm and dark in color, all delivered with dramatic passion and supreme musicality. Delivering his own full Italian passion, Panuccio, so brightly lyrical of voice, with stunning high notes, matched Thomson note for note. The result: some of the most exciting singing ever to issue from human throats.

After intermission, some of the audience were tardy in returning to their seats. Panuccio and Jones graciously deferred beginning the second half until the audience had fully returned. It was another highlight of the evening as the two artists bantered with the audience, greeting friends, and answering questions. Then it was back to Italian opera with Panuccio singing the brief, but melodious Amor ti vieta from Umberto Giordano's “Fedora”. Thomson displayed her exquisite Verdian voice with Tacea la notte placida (complete with cabaletta) from “Il Trovatore."

For a grand finale, the two united for the lengthy duet Ora stammi a sentir from the first act of Puccini's “Tosca.” It's difficult to haul out enough superlatives to describe their singing. Let thrilling, beautiful, and exciting serve. The audience responded with one of those nutty-cuckoo ovations that opera lovers are so good at producing spontaneously. Just as the audience rewarded the artists with an ovation, so the artists rewarded the audience with an encore: an ebullient Libiamo duet from the first act of “La Traviata.” In sum: what an evening!

On Saturday (Oct. 27), I managed to squeeze in a rollicking, blood-bath matinee performance of “Titus Anronicus” at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company before spending the evening at the College-Conservatory of Music for more opera. This time the opera was not just new, but practically hot off the presses.

In 2011, “Opera Fusion: New Works” was created to further the development of new American operas. It is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is co-directed by Marcus Küchle, Director of Artistic Operations for Cincinnati Opera, and Robin Guarino, J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The program offers residencies for opera composers and librettists to develop their opera.

This season's the first residency (October 19-28) at CCM gave composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Cristofer the opportunity to rehearse and develop their opera “Champion.” The results were on public display at CCM Saturday evening in performance of excerpts. The opera has had two previous workshops in St Louis and now is essentially finished. It will have its world premiere in 2013 at Opera Theater of St Louis (starring Denyce Graves, Aubrey Allicock, Arthur Woodley, and Robert Orth).

Blanchard is noted for his work as a composer of jazz and music for film. He has received five Grammy Awards. The current Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” has music by Blanchard. Champion” is his first opera. Librettist Cristofer is a playwright, filmmaker, and actor. In 1977, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play for “The Shadow Box.” For HBO's “Gia,” Cristofer received a Golden Globe, a Writer's Guild Award, two Emmy nominations and a best director award from the Director's Guild of America. This is his first opera libretto.

“Champion” is based on the true story of boxer Emile Griffith. A world champion prizefighter, Griffith experienced both triumph and tragedy. In 1962, Griffith won the Welterweight Championship, a triumph. But that triumph resulted in tragedy when Griffith punched his opponent, Benny “The Kid” Paret, seventeen punches in seven seconds, putting Paret in a coma from which he never recovered. At the weigh-in before the match, Paret had mocked Griffith using homosexual slurs.

Years later, Griffith's homosexuality was revealed when he was severely beaten by a gang outside a gay bar in Chicago. His career had already degenerated and ended long before the Chicago incident. After the fight with Paret (actually the third, with each fighter winning one of the two matches), Griffith was beset by rage and regret for the terrible consequences of their fight. Of great importance to Griffith was that he be forgiven by Paret's son, which he actually received. Griffith is still alive, but mentally impaired.

Present for the CCM performance (in concert) of excerpts from the opera were the composer and stage director James Robinson (Artistic Director of the St Louis Opera Theater) who will stage the premiere. Greg Ritchey conducted an ensemble of two pianos, percussion, and double bass. After an introduction by Guarino, Robinson took over to introduce each of the ten excerpts, sung in chronological order. Robinson was quite generous and illuminating in his commentary. Fifteen CCM singers had rehearsed the entire opera during the preceding week. The selection of excerpts to be performed was highly frustrating and difficult.

The opera is less about boxing than about the struggles of an individual to find his place in society. Griffith is quoted: “I killed a man and the world forgave me. I loved a man and the world wanted to kill me.” While there is the violence of the Griffith-Paret fight as the Act 1 finale (not performed), most of the story is told in a restrained, even intimate manner. The music is surprisingly delicate, as befits the way the story is told. It is a fusion of jazz and operatic style, more jazz than opera, smooth, cool, and refined. It is also very effective. The text is also set with dialogue spoken over music, with lots of rhyming. Practically the entire role of the Sports Announcer (Brandon Morales) is spoken.

One can point to several highlights: Young Emile's aria “What is a man,” introspective, deeply emotional, so beautifully sung by Derrell Acon. The opera's finale, “At the end of the day,” sums up the story, bringing the opera to a delicate end. High marks go to soprano Melisa Bonetti (Emile's Mother, Emelda) and Conor McDonald (Howie).

After the performance, Küchle led an extensive question and answer session for the audience, Blanchard, Robinson, and the cast. Bravo to Opera Fusion. It is not just an excellent, helpful experience for the creators, but also for the audience. A second workshop at CCM in November will feature the opera-in-progress “Morning Star” by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William M. Hoffman. A CCM ensemble will be joined by internationally known soprano Kara Shay Thomson.