Friday, March 29, 2013


Severance Hall
March 27

Drawing a professional sound from a student ensemble.

One of the most impressive aspects of the classical music scene in Cleveland is its focus on youth. The Cleveland Orchestra’s Special Showcase Concert earlier this month offered a reminder of how many programs it sponsors to develop young players – a Children’s Chorus, Youth Chorus, Youth Orchestra, and Isabel Trautwein’s El Sistema transplant – along with regular Education and Family concerts. And on Wednesday night at Severance, the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra turned in a performance that would have made any professional ensemble proud.

Along with talented, CIM’s student orchestra is fearless, taking on substantial programs like Wednesday’s challenging combination of Mussorgsky, Grieg and Prokofiev. Under the baton of CIM Orchestral Program Director Carl Topilow, the sound was superb and the execution was razor-sharp, particularly in Prokofiev’s daunting Symphony No. 5. Soloist I-Chieh Wang showed poise and great potential with her deft handling of Grieg’s Piano concerto in A minor (Op. 16).

Mussorgsky’s prelude to Khovanshchina, an unfinished opera, portrays dawn on the Moscow River in gauzy textures and shimmering colors. It’s a brief exercise in technique that the players finessed nicely, with Topilow drawing a light, golden sound from the strings and creating an ephemeral effect that lingered after the piece gently faded to a close.

Great on the Grieg.
Wang is too young to have developed as a stylist, but her raw talent is unmistakable. After opening the Grieg concerto with a strong declaration of the famous piano phrase, she showed an assured and surprisingly soft touch. In a piece that calls for a lot of banging, Wang did almost none; her hands seemed to float above the keyboard in fluid runs and dramatic flourishes, the lines clearly articulated but never overstated. Sensitivity to phrasing and approach, striking technical skills, mastery of the material – Wang had it all, albeit in early-career form.

Topilow helped with a fine job of balancing the orchestra sound, never overwhelming the piano and opening up space for Wang to build drama. Working largely off the strings, he maintained a silken feel and muted volume until the closing moments, when he built the sound to majestic proportions and steered the piece to a sharp, satisfying close.

Topilow’s forte is colors, and his charges did a masterful job of bringing them to life in the Prokofiev symphony. Amid the heaving intensity of the first movement, the brass shone vividly above the growl of the bass drums and deep horns, and the multiple melody lines pulsed with energy. The orchestra showed remarkable agility with a shift to a more nimble posture and lighthearted tone in the second movement, turning in a technical tour de force with crisp contrasts and driving rhythms. The tension in the third movement was finely crafted, setting up the fast pace and dazzling juxtapositions of the final movement, with melodies and accents flitting through the orchestra like birds, and the sound coalescing behind five percussionists for a spectacular fireworks finish.

After such a polished performance, it was a bit startling to see how young and small the players were when they stood for applause, like someone had put an adult orchestra in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine.* Their next concert pairs the orchestra with an outstanding chamber ensemble, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Circle the date and prepare to be impressed.

For more on the CIM Orchestra’s next concert:

For more on Carl Topilow:

*Sorry about the obscure reference, which is explained here:

Photos courtesy of CIM

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Severance Hall
March 21

An experienced hand with the 20th-century repertoire.

Ordinarily, seeing a replacement for Pierre Boulez on the podium at Severance would make for a disappointing evening. But it took Alan Gilbert all of two minutes to dispel any regrets about missing Boulez and claim his appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra this past weekend as uniquely, and delightfully, his own.

It’s tempting to attribute Gilbert’s stellar showing to his familiarity with the orchestra; he spent three seasons in Cleveland (1994-97) as a conducting assistant and then assistant conductor. But that was a long time ago, especially when measured by the accomplishments and accolades Gilbert has garnered since. His appointment to Music Director of the New York Philharmonic followed eight years with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and numerous performances through the U.S. and Europe, where he is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Somehow he also finds time to oversee the conducting and orchestral studies program at Juilliard.

Still, no one could come in and create the exquisite sound Gilbert drew out of the orchestra without knowing its capabilities and strengths. The 46-year old maestro is also a devotee of 20th-century music, a considerable advantage when one is conducting a program of Ravel and Mahler. The program was an ideal match for Gilbert’s skills and tastes, and his fluency in interpreting it was like watching an expert driver put a Ferrari through its paces.

The first and most striking quality of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) was its fine balance. Gilbert had fingertip control of the sound, elucidating a single harp or entire string section with equal precision and clarity, never losing a note in building textures or making transitions. Not many conductors can attain that level of transparency, especially in such a complicated piece.

In Gilbert’s hands the melodies were light, almost floating from the stage, buoyed by sweet violins and shimmering cellos. Their lyrical quality was enchanting, like fairy tales are supposed to be. But Gilbert’s real genius was in the details – the prick of Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, the Beast’s glissando transformation into a handsome prince, the sudden explosion of birds taking flight in “Tom Thumb.” Vividly portrayed and carefully nuanced, the effects fit neatly into the overall flow of the piece, lending it a three-dimensional quality and highlighting its brilliant musicality. Gilbert spun up the ending into a wisp of final notes that hung in the air like fading fireworks.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is a sprawling work that is difficult to know how to take at times. Is the composer being ironic, humorous, bold or just his usual inscrutable self? The answer is all of the above, making the conductor’s most difficult task simply pulling everything together. Gilbert delivered a version of unusual integrity, with a solid organic center and polished New World gloss.

He opened the piece in large dimensions, though quickly established that Mahler’s big statements need not be overwhelming. The heaving sections of the extended first movement were crisp and commanding, powerful without becoming unwieldy, giving way easily to brilliant colors in the horns and woodwinds. Gilbert reveled in the inventiveness of the second movement, using a light touch and careful layering to build the sound, and paying attention to small details like the cowbell. With the voices of the individual sections well-established, he was able to put a satirical edge on the horns in the third movement and squeeze some humor out of the guitar and mandolin in the fourth. The relatively conventional final movement roared off the stage in exuberant cascades, bursting with energy that culminated in an explosive, sharply executed finish.

It’s not often that one gets to hear the vocabulary of 20th-century music so well-understood and eloquently expressed. And from a substitute conductor, no less. We wish Pierre Boulez well, and hope to see him next season. But Alan Gilbert is welcome back anytime.

For more on Alan Gilbert:

Photo by Chris Lee

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Plymouth Church
March 19

A Central European sound from Boulder, Colorado.

In an evening of superlatives that included a guest appearance by superstar pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the most striking moment in the Takács Quartet’s performance on Tuesday came in the opening bars of Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet (Op. 76. No. 4). With the audience’s ears and expectations primed by an opening Brahms work, the piece could have stayed in the Romantic mode and sounded glorious. Yet there it was: elegantly Classical, a segue of nearly a century with barely a whisper of transition, a sound beautifully self-contained and absolutely true to the music.

This is emblematic of the Takács Quartet, a world-class string ensemble founded in Budapest in 1975. The group still has a distinctly Central European sound, despite having replaced two of its members with foreigners and relocating to Boulder, Colorado. Most chamber groups achieve notoriety by putting their own mark on the music, developing a specific style of interpretation. The Takács Quartet goes the other way – deep inside the music, finding its heart and revealing its intrinsic beauty without getting in the way. The players don’t so much interpret works as inhabit them.

Their polished familiarity with Tuesday’s program was hardly surprising, as the group has recorded all three pieces, twice in the case of the two Brahms quartets. But the warmth of their tone was captivating, as was the seamless quality of their sound, even in the most complex passages. Over the course of the entire evening, there wasn’t a single sharp edge in the music; it all flowed like water, a technical tour de force.

The somber cast of Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 was anchored by the dark-hued timbre of András Fejér’s cello, enhanced by the rich acoustics of the church. An understated approach kept the tempo moderate and let the music breathe, maintaining remarkable clarity in a score that is often orchestral in its density. The final movement was impassioned but controlled, building gradually to the dramatic breaks and a dynamic finish.

The Haydn work is one of the more serious in the composer’s oeuvre, and a good fit for the Quartet, which kept the darker tones but this time with an airy, silken feel. The opening movement was like morning breezes, and the second wonderfully evocative of evening atmospherics and stars in the sky. The sudden changes in rhythm and texture in the third movement were perfectly realized, transporting listeners to another place entirely. And first violinist Edward Dusinberre was particularly impressive in the intricate runs of the finale, bringing the audience to its feet with a spirited finish.

It seems heretical to characterize Garrick Ohlsson’s appearance for Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and strings in F minor, Op. 34 as anticlimactic. But Ohlsson wasn’t there for the spotlight. He sat behind the players and occupied the same position in the music, playing subdued accompaniment and dropping embellishments and solo phrases into the somber string sound like bright raindrops. The strings were heart-rending at times, even gripping in the extended second violin lines played by Károly Schranz. The deep sound of the cello and Geraldine Walther’s viola added Wagnerian overtones to the third movement, and the finale was a masterful display of intensity and contrast, ranging from soft solos to ringing melodic outbursts from all five players.

The Cleveland Chamber Music Society consistently offers some of the best concerts in the city. But even by its usual standards, this was an exceptional evening of intelligent, well-informed work by brilliant players. The following night, Ohlsson and the Takács Quartet performed the same program at Lincoln Center in New York – no doubt to a much larger audience, at much more expensive ticket prices. At times, classical music fans in Cleveland are truly blessed.

For more on the Takács Quartet:

Photo by Ellen Appel

Sunday, March 17, 2013


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
March 16

Splendid ensemble work with spotty solos.

Apollo’s Fire rolled out the A-team for the second of its winter Fireside Concerts: Music Director Jeannette Sorrell on harpsichord, violinist Olivier Brault, cellist René Schiffer and Baroque flute specialist Kathie Stewart. Like the program juxtaposing Bach and Telemann, the results were mixed – and presented in reverse order. “In honor of Bach,” Sorrell explained with a mischievous smile.

Starting from the bottom, then, the group opened with the first of two Telemann quartets, No. 12 in E minor from his “Paris” series. Perhaps because of the improvisatory nature of some passages, particularly in the opening and closing movements, the sound didn’t quite gel until late in the piece. The trademark of Apollo’s Fire’s sound is a light, airy quality which was charming in the middle movements. But the organic core that characterizes the group’s best ensemble work was in short supply.

Schiffer had the stage to himself for Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor, and played straight from the heart. Much of the phrasing was uniquely his, as were the variations in tempo and emphasis. This took some of the energy out of the piece, which sounded labored, even leaden at times. Schiffer is a skilled player who was perhaps overly self-absorbed as a soloist, too deep into the work’s moody atmospherics to come up for air. Still, it’s always a treat to hear Bach’s solo cello works given a focused performance.

The mood lightened after intermission with one of Bach’s flute sonatas (BWV 1034, in E minor), a trio that showcased fine, fluid work by Stewart, with Sorrell and Schiffer providing basso continuo. The group’s buoyant sound served the piece well, and the three players worked off each other expertly. Stewart provided a spirited lead, and was called back to the stage for an extra and well-deserved hand.

Brault approached Bach’s sublime Ciaccona from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor with a focused intensity that matched Schiffer’s – and the same latitude in interpretation. This piece is a serious test of technical skills, so it wasn’t surprising that Brault was off-pitch at times. Not much, and not often, and there was no mistaking the passion in his playing. He was particularly good at creating colors and contrasts, and finding some sweet emotional moments in the intricate score. But at its best this virtuoso work is transcendent, and Brault never quite hit those heights.

The full quartet was back for the concluding Telemann Paris Quartet No. 1, a marvelously inventive piece with an unorthodox structure and changing tempos. It provided the most captivating performance of the concert – emotionally expressive, technically tight, with a bright tone and agile playing featuring some nimble work by Stewart. The musicians clearly liked the piece and enjoyed playing it, adding an extra effervescence.

More of the full ensemble and less solo work would have made for a more satisfying evening, at least in this critic’s opinion. But that shouldn’t be taken as a complaint. This group of players has earned their time in the spotlight, as well as the freedom to put their individual stamps on well-known works. And who else in town makes themselves available after the performance to meet audience members and hear their reactions? It’s a generous gesture and part of what has made Apollo’s Fire so successful, in Cleveland and throughout the country.

For more on Kathie Stewart:

For a preview of the next Apollo’s Fire concert:

Saturday, March 16, 2013


E.J. Thomas Hall
March 14
Cleveland Museum of Art
March 15

Yo-Yo Ma anchors a meeting of East and West.

For all the amenities that northeast Ohio offers, it can be an achingly provincial place. So the trade winds that blew through this past weekend were a welcome change, bringing an invigorating infusion of international sounds.

Nearly 3,000 people jammed E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Thursday night to hear Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a traveling caravan that serves up a spicy mix of players and music from the legendary trade route. The program reached from Japan to Western Europe, giving the audience a chance to see exotic instruments like the tabla (Indian drum), sheng (Chinese mouth organ), kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle), shakuhachi (Japanese flute), pipa (Chinese lute) and gaita (Galician bagpipe).

Many of the musicians playing those instruments are headliners in their own right. The 15-member lineup in the current touring version of the Ensemble includes Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso kamancheh player; Sandeep Das, an internationally recognized tabla master; Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen; and the amazing Cristina Pato, a classically trained pianist who doubles on the gaita, which she handles like a rock star. Yo-Yo Ma has not only the genius to assemble groups of this caliber, but the generosity to stay in the background during their performances, giving other stars a chance to shine (he introduced himself to the audience as “the other cellist” in the group).

The concert opened with Side In Side Out, a warmup piece that gives the band a chance to do what it does best: set a groove, then work it as background for soloists. Kojiro Umezaki (on shakuhachi) and Yang Wei (on pipa) offered a fine duet, carefully nuanced and uncommonly detailed. Atashgah was like a sonic trip to another world, featuring an evocative interplay of Eastern and Western strings and a haunting solo by Kalhor. A suite of Roma (gypsy) songs was less successful, almost too erudite for its own good – well-informed and smartly played, but lacking the fervor that characterizes authentic Romani music.

Pato and gaita.
The second half opened with Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, composed for the Ensemble by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer as an extended jam with rotating solos. Pato was mesmerizing, starting on the piano and segueing to the gaita to trade some tasty licks with Wei. Umezaki then narrated the Japanese folk tale Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment from a Crane), supplemented by musical improvisation on the shakuhachi, cello and percussion. The closing suite from Book of Angels by John Zorn was short on the promised melodies but good clap-along fun, with the ensemble carrying the energy over to a brief encore with a nifty duet by Kalhor and Das.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a rare and unlikely combination of elements: a pop group with the training and depth of a classical orchestra (sans horns); a big band that plays with the sensitivity of a string quartet; an esoteric assemblage that makes foreign ideas and sounds accessible to a mainstream audience. And unlike other supergroups, this one makes an effort to establish a rapport with its audience, which responded with a standing ovation. International flavors never went down so easy.

Memo to Yo-Yo Ma: The next musician you should recruit for the Ensemble is Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, who gave a dazzling performance at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday night. This is the first opportunity American audiences have had to see Shamma in more than a decade, as he suspending touring in the U.S. during the invasion and occupation of his homeland. It was well worth the wait.

Shamma appeared with his six-man ensemble Al-Oyoun, which combines Western instruments (two violins, contrabass) with ancient Arabic instruments: the qanun, a flat board with strings, akin to a zither; the nay, a cane flute; and the riqq, a small tambourine with cymbals. The oud, which looks like a guitar with a bulbous body and bent neck, is a forerunner of the European lute, sans frets. It typically has six strings; Shamma sometimes uses eight.

Reinventing Arabic music.
CMA’s Massoud Saidpour lauded Shamma’s “extraordinarily fresh, electric sound” in his introduction, and he was not exaggerating. In developing what he calls Arab Chamber Music, Shamma has infused traditional Arabic sounds with Western tempos and techniques, and reached back to Early Islamic music (roughly 800-1200 AD) for melodic inspiration. To Western ears, the result is an Arabic base with layers of progressive jazz, Spanish guitar and an occasional rock riff.

Shamma opened with a solo that showcased his signature style: blazing fingerwork, innovative arrangements, driving rhythms and dramatic breaks. Over the course of the evening he used standard techniques like vibrato, and unique approaches like playing one-handed on the neck. It was a breathtaking display by a musician who not only has complete command of his instrument, but has expanded its range and possibilities. In one song, Shamma would weave intricate atmospherics; in the next, he could have been playing blues slide guitar.

Most of the songs followed a standard Western format of establishing a melody or theme, then filling the midsection with solos and improv phrases traded between players, giving them a chance to show their considerable skills. Hany ElBadry got an incredibly rich sound out of his diminutive nay, at times calling to mind Herbie Mann. Violinists ElGhandour Hussein and Said Zaki invoked the enchantments of Arabian Nights, embellished in vivid colors by qanun player Saber AbdelSattar. Keeping it all moving with a rhythmic bottom were riqq player Amro Mostafa and bassist Miles Jay (an American who studied in Egypt).

Shamma introduced the songs with Arabic titles, drawing applause from a sizable Mideast contingent in the audience. Afterward, enthusiastic fans stood in line to meet Shamma, who smiled and graciously posed for pictures with them. If that spirit colored all Western-Mideastern relations, the world would be a much better – and better-sounding – place.

For more on the Silk Road Ensemble players and instruments:

Many videos of Naseer Shamma are posted on YouTube. Here’s one:

Silk Road Ensemble photos: Todd Rosenberg/Sony BMG Masterworks

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Severance Hall
February 28

A conductor who knows his orchestra.

There was barely room on the Severance stage this past weekend for Music Director Laureate Christoph von Dohnányi to make his way to the podium. A bank of nine percussionists across the rear wall fortified a sea of brass, woodwind and string players who seemed for a vertiginous moment to have reversed the natural musical order, with the bass and cellos packed on the left and two pianos, a celesta and two harps clumped on the right.

This is what one may expect when Mahler is on the bill, along with a direct descendant: Hans Werner Henze, a 20th-century German composer who looked to Mahler for inspiration in composing his opera The Bassarids. Von Dohnányi, who conducted the world premiere of the work at the Salzburg Festival in 1966, paired a suite from the opera with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for his guest appearance at Severance this season.

It was at von Dohnányi’s request that Henze, who died just four months ago, excerpted an Adagio, Fugue and the wild “Dance of the Maenads” from The Bassarids in 2005 and wove them into an orchestral piece for concert performance. The result is a mosaic of vivid intensity, multilayered with abrupt shifts in texture and volume, from solo instruments standing in for voices to full orchestral outbursts. Hearing the work for the first time is like sampling a musical stew, with a dizzying array of sounds thrown into what often seems like a chaotic mix.

So it was remarkable to hear the clarity that von Dohnányi brought to the piece. With countermelodies constantly simmering below the surface, and broken narrative lines rising and falling with sharp prompts from the percussion, keyboards and brass, simply maintaining a cohesive sound is an accomplishment. Von Dohnányi rendered it with both depth and transparency, aided in no small part by precision work from the players. The conductor singled out the horns and percussion for special acknowledgment; this critic also appreciated crisp work from the bassoons and first piano. But those were just the obvious highlights of a technically brilliant performance from both conductor and orchestra.

By comparison the Mahler symphony seemed almost straightforward, which is not how one typically describes a work considered so radical when it premiered in 1889 that the composer labeled it a “symphonic poem in two parts.” Von Dohnányi opened it delicately, carefully modulating the signature phrase in the woodwinds and offstage trumpets before introducing warm, full strings to raise the volume and tone just short of exuberant. He kept the first movement understated until the explosion of horns and percussion in the closing bars, leaving room for sparkling subtleties in the woodwinds.

The melodic second movement was also carefully crafted, with von Dohnányi maintaining a meticulous balance in the sound and drawing rich colors from the horns. He gave the third movement, with its repeating “Frère Jacques” theme, a brooding quality, invoking more of a funereal atmosphere than a childhood reverie. The slow tempo supported a sound so clear and refined that individual notes from the harp popped. It also allowed von Dohnányi to develop a fine contrast between the woodwinds and main theme in the cellos and bass. He kept the tempo restrained in the final movement as well, lingering over the lyrical passages and layering bright horns on top of driving strings to bring the piece to a thrilling finish.

In all, the performance was an impressive demonstration of what a conductor can do with an orchestra that he knows very well. Von Dohnányi played to the ensemble’s strengths: highly skilled individual players, exceptionally warm strings, a precise style and the marvelous acoustics of its home hall. The musicians clearly enjoyed the experience, applauding the conductor along with the audience. All reunions should be this good.

For more on Christoph von Dohnányi and his tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra:

Photo by Terry O'Neill

Friday, March 1, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
February 27
Bohemian National Hall
February 24

Allyson Dezii, right, portrays an anguished novitiate.

The opera gods smiled on Cleveland this week with two – count ’em! – productions encompassing 140 years of musical history and spanning the far reaches of comedy and tragedy. The ambitious Opera Circle served up one of the great opera buffas, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, in the Old World setting of Bohemian National Hall. On the modern stage at the Cleveland Institute of Music, David Bamberger directed a searing 20th-century work, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Bamberger built Carmelites around a compelling contemporary theme, which he outlines in the program. Noting the prevalence of religious fanaticism in today’s world, he offers Poulenc’s opera as a “valuable corrective,” a reminder that sectarian violence can be just as blind, especially in a society with growing wealth disparity, political partisanship and a taste for blood. In the 1794 setting of the opera, the French Revolution is underway and the guillotine, rather than the gun, is taking innocent lives. Carmelites focuses on a community of nuns caught up in the anti-religious fervor, and the terrible fate it brings.

The action opens with a ragtag mob that accosts an aristocrat and then chases him up the aisle. It’s an ingenious device that Bamberger reprises throughout the evening to great effect. With pitchfork-armed vigilantes liable to burst through the doors and swarm down the aisles at any moment, it’s not just the aristocrats and nuns onstage who are in danger; implicitly, the audience is threatened as well. Bamberger also does an impressive job of keeping the action moving – no small achievement in an opera whose first half is mostly spiritual angst and philosophical musings performed in recitative.

The singing was uniformly good, though with few standouts. As the novitiate Blanche, Allyson Dezii crafted a sympathetic character with tender, often imploring singing. Ellyn Glasscock and Cynthia Skelley-Wohlschlager gave strong performances as the head nuns at the convent, with the latter turning in a commanding death scene to close the first act. And include Laura Anne Cotney (Sister Constance) on the list of singers who mastered the demanding vocal lines, which call for high-pitched shrieks at odd moments (a function partly of performing the opera in English).

The music is riveting, a dramatic mix of tension, color and impending doom offset by religious hymns, all rendered with skillful flair by conductor Harry Davidson. Almost every passage in the score mirrors the emotions playing out onstage, and Davidson did expert work setting the narrative tone. Even the interludes between scenes, mostly given to the woodwinds, were captivating. The sound of the guillotine punctuated the music in the final scene with devastating emotional impact, a measure of how well Davidson and Bamberger succeeded in assembling a taut, compelling production.

The Barber of Seville was just the opposite – loose, light and played for broad laughs, as it should be. After one of the more familiar musical introductions in all of opera, the title character, Figaro, is enlisted to help Count Almaviva win his true love, Rosina. She is ensconced in the home of Doctor Bartolo, who has his own designs on her, so that entails disguises, a ladder at the balcony window and other high jinks that end happily for the lovers (and in this production, a consolation prize for the befuddled doctor).

Sobieska and Miles.
The female lead in Opera Circle productions is sung by Executive Director Dorota Sobieska, an experienced soprano with a fondness for bel canto. She gave a spirited performance but was not quite up to the vocal demands of Rosina, faltering at points in the recitative and some of the coloratura runs. Diana Farrell, younger and stronger in voice, had a nice turn as her maid Berta. John Gray Watson (Figaro) outshone Matthew Miles (Count Almaviva) in most of their scenes together, but it was Jason Budd as Doctor Bartolo who dominated the male cast, with strong, agile vocals and a witty slapstick performance.

Music was provided by the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, which sounded remarkably rich and full, given the hall’s tenuous acoustics. Conductor Robert Croquist set a lively pace with the famous overture, and maintained a brisk, engaging flow throughout. His work in the ensemble sequences was particularly good, especially to close out the second act.

Opera Circle productions have a clunky charm – painted curtain scenery, singers bumping into each other, Sobieska encouraging the audience before this performance to “feel free to laugh.” But she and her husband Jacek Sobieski, who was music director at the National Theater in Warsaw for nearly two decades, are serious professionals working hard to bring opera to a city without a standing company. Given their resources, they do a remarkable job. And technical shortcomings notwithstanding, their productions are a delight, heartfelt and accessible to even casual listeners, as the packed house at the Bohemian National Hall demonstrated.

In June, Opera Circle will take a big step up with a production of Rigoletto at the Ohio Theater featuring an imported conductor and lead singer. This critic can hardly wait.

Dialogues of the Carmelites plays again on March 1 & 2. For tickets:

For more on Opera Circle:

Photos courtesy of CIM and Opera Circle