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

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