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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Remember That Name—Jordan Shanahan

Back in the early 1990s, Heathcliff Slocumb was a young, highly touted relief pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. But other than his colorful moniker and a couple of seasons of minimally modest results, his three seasons with the Cubs was utterly forgettable. In fact, the only reason we even recall his name today was because, every time Slocumb was spotted getting ready to make an appearance, Cubs broadcaster Harry Carey would announce to the TV audience, “…and warming up in the bullpen—remember that name—Heathcliff Slocumb.” What he meant, I suppose, was something along the lines of “…just think, you’ll be able to tell your grandkids that you saw the great Heathcliff when he was just a little pisher…”

However, as with most Cubs’ players in the past 20 years, his potential far outstripped the results. Slocumb never lived up to his advance press, bouncing around with teams in both the American and National Leagues before retiring in 2000.

But to take the baseball metaphor one step further, there must be situations where fans recognize that they’re in the presence of future greatness. Imagine sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds in 1951, watching a young Willie Mays streak around the bases after hitting a ball into the gap.

One of the exciting things about attending an opera competition is the possibility of hearing a future star. But the likelihood of doing so in a relative backwater like Denver is slim, mainly because of the limited talent pool here. My wife and I have attended both the Met Regionals and the locally produced Denver Lyric Opera Guild (DLOG) since 1991—with a couple of “misses” along the way—and while we’ve heard a few singers who figured to have a decent future in the opera world, no one ever struck us as having Star Potential.

…until a few weeks ago, that is…

The annual DLOG competition is strictly a cash-for-play deal. Unlike the Met and similar competitions that take place around the country, there is no recording contract or guaranteed singing position for the winner—simply a check and a certificate, some publicity, plus the bragging rights that go with a first-place finish. Past winners have included Helena Biktasheva, James Bobick, Julianne Best, Emily Herrera and Christopher Job—hardly household names in the World of Opera. In fact, the only “name” in the group is 1990 winner Yalun Zhang, who made a big splash in the early ’90s with several Opera Colorado productions and has since enjoyed a nice, solid career primarily in Germany (plus some appearances at the Met in NYC), singing strong Verdi baritone roles.

The DLOG affair takes place on consecutive Saturdays. The preliminaries have the feel of an operatic cattle call, with as many as 50 or more young men and women slated to perform. Despite the occasional no-show—due perhaps to a last-minute scheduling conflict or cold feet—there are easily 40-plus singers to be heard. Most of them are mediocre singers, some are truly awful, and a few do well enough to please both the audience and the judges. Audience members enjoy (a) keeping track of what everyone performs, (b) jotting down comments on each singer—some of the less complimentary ones my wife and I used this year included “poor breath control,” “show-tune voice,” weak upper register” and “if I hear Pamina’s aria from “Magic Flute” one more time, I’m going to scream”—and (c) trying to outguess the judges to see who advances to the final round. Fifteen singers are chosen as finalists, to return the following weekend.

There are times when it takes only a few notes to decide whether or not a singer has “it.” With others it takes listening to both arias before a judgment can be made. As we know from hearing professional singers, certain voices are better with one genre of music as opposed to another. For example, the late Anna Moffo was ideally suited to performing lighter roles (Butterfly, Mimi, Lucia), yet totally out of her element when she tried something like “Norma.”

Late on the afternoon of March 4, having sat since ten o’clock while a bevy of young singers (none older than 32, and most of them in their mid- to late 20s) paraded in front of us, Jordan Shanahan took the stage. He stepped forward and, as the pianist flipped to the proper page in his score, announced his name and first musical selection in a deep baritone. Barely three or four notes had poured from his throat before my wife and I turned and gave each other the proverbial “thumbs up” signal. We already knew the name of this year’s winner; it only remained to be seen whether the judges would agree with our assessment.

Shanahan’s first selection that day was from Tchaikovsky’s “Pikova Dama” (“Queen of Spades”), quite possibly the first time we’d ever heard it in a competition. Sung in (what sounded to us like) perfectly accented Russian, his tone was commanding and his phrasing flawless. Considering all the singers we’d heard in this setting, he was the first who truly rated a “Bravo.” For his second selection the judges asked for Ford’s aria from “Falstaff,” a long and devilishly difficult piece that may well be the most intricate baritone aria Verdi ever composed—every bit the equal to Iago’s “Credo” in complexity, if not drama.

The applause was long and enthusiastic, nearly carrying over to the entrance of the afternoon’s final singer. Afterward, the judges withdrew to pick the finalists. My wife and I made a point of seeking Shanahan out and telling him how much we’d enjoyed his performance. We learned that he was relocating to Chicago in a few days, having been selected to join the Lyric Opera’s Young Artists Program. Since my wife grew up out there, and as her parents live just a stone’s throw from Grant Park—where these young artists perform in the eponymous music festival once every summer—we were able to give him some insight as to what he might expect as a Loop resident. The opera house itself is only a few blocks from the park.

Less than an hour later, the judges came back with their decision and Jordan was one of the chosen fifteen. A few days later I did some Googling to find out more about this fine singer. I came across a number of references to past successes, as well as this Web site that includes a couple of MP3 singing selections.

The following week we were anxious to see how things would turn out. As usual, the judges had ignored a couple of singers we’d expected to move forward and rewarded others that seemed, to our ears, less deserving of advancement. Since this second round would be adjudicated by a separate triumvirate, we wondered if any of them would say (either out loud or simply to themselves), “Gosh, how did he/she ever get past the first round?”

Shanahan was slated to perform last, which seemed to be neither a random nor a capricious decision by the event’s organizers. Audience members who’d attended the preliminaries were abuzz as the fourteenth singer left the stage. Jordan strode out and announced his name, adding, “For my first selection, I’ll sing the Confession Aria from ‘Dead Man Walking.’”

In the brief time between that announcement and the opening chords, you could have heard a pin drop. This two-act opera, composed in 2001 by Jake Heggie (???who???), was based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. Its premiere by the San Francisco Opera was as controversial as the subject itself. The aria Shanahan chose marks the dramatic apex of the work, sung by the death-row inmate portrayed in the movie version of this story by Sean Penn.

It was a radically daring choice—and certainly an unknown one as far as the audience was concerned. These competitions rarely, if ever, feature modern-day arias. Occasionally one will hear something by Menotti or Douglas Moore, but those selections are forty or more years old. This piece was not especially melodious, nor did one expect it to be. But Shanahan sang it dead-on (pun intended, I suppose) and with the sort of drama that the lyrics demanded. It sounds almost too much like a cliché to write it here, but this 28-year-old baritone held the audience in the palm of his hand during the four minutes or so that he sang Heggie’s composition. The audience exploded in applause as the last notes died away, the final lyrics—“I killed her,” repeated twice for extra effect—both sad and sinister.

The judges asked Shanahan to sing the Tchaikovsky as a follow-up, and his rendition equaled that of the previous week. Five minutes later the judges were sequestered to make their decisions, and the rest of us headed off to the social hall for coffee and cookies.

It should go without saying that Jordan Shanahan was named the 2006 DLOG Competition winner, collecting a check for six grand and adding one more award to his resume. I think that the audience might have rushed the stage if the judges had picked anyone else for the top prize. Never in the past 15 years had I heard anyone who was so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack. Sadly, first-place finishers cannot compete in subsequent DLOG competitions. I suppose that makes sense. Gladly, we’ll be in Chicago this summer and will be sure to schedule our visit during the time that Grant Park puts on its opera program. Members of their Young Artists program have been featured in past performances of “Die Fledermaus” and “La damnation de Faust,” among others.

It appears that Chicago will finally have one celebrity worthy of a “remember that name” declaration—even if he isn’t a Cub.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Force of Musical Obsession

A few months ago I posted a column here regarding the Yahoo! classical music chat room I visit with some regularity—regrettably not as often these days now that I have a day job. One of the perks we enjoy is playing music for the other visitors in the room. While there are no set play lists—and the variety of classical pieces one hears is impressive—Saturday nights have evolved into all-opera extravaganzas. I’m not sure how that transpired, but it’s a fun tradition and, naturally, I contribute where I can.

This past Saturday night there were only two of us playing music, plus an average of a dozen other chatters in the “room” over the course of several hours. For some reason things ended up as a Dueling Verdi scenario, with each of us playing various arias and ensemble pieces that escalated into a delightful version of one-upmanship.

My contributions included Jerome Hines singing Banquo’s aria from “Macbeth,” Carlo Bergonzi with the famous tenor aria from “Luisa Miller,” and the Act Two finale from “I Masnadieri” in a recording that features Joan Sutherland and Cornell MacNeil. My counterpart offered selections from “Traviata,” “Giovanna d’Arco” and “Trovatore,” among others.

It was the final piece he played, just as I was getting ready to log off the Internet for the night, which drove me to my DVD player in order to fulfill an instantaneous musical obsession. It struck an especially sensitive chord with me because the work had just been sung at the Met, received various reviews in the broader operatic blogosphere, and was found wanting—decried by many as a “warhorse,” and not in a good way.

I’ll be the first to admit that “La Forza del Destino” offers up a pretty lame story line. My wife calls it “the fatal ankle wound” opera, referring to the first-act demise of Leonora’s father due to an accidentally discharged firearm. There is also severe padding in the form of two crowd scenes that feature Preziosilla—a gypsy fortuneteller (is there any other kind?)—plus monks and penitents, a peddler of worthless goods, and assorted hangers-on.

Verdi composed “Forza” in 1862 as a commissioned work for the opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia. The version that is most often performed today, however, was changed considerably for its premiere in Italy. The original ending had Don Alvaro committing suicide following the deaths of Leonora and her brother, whereas the later version sees him live on in despair. After all, it may be a sin for a monk to kill the brother of his former lover, but it’s an even greater sin to do oneself in, so I gather.

But the music is incredibly compelling, especially since Verdi has created a thematic device that underscores the drama of his work. No matter what tangents the story takes, this undercurrent of sinister music— heard first in the overture and then at the beginning of each successive act—motivates the listener to believe that there truly may be some force of destiny out there in the universe.

There are confrontations galore throughout the opera—one army versus another, the Marquis of Calatrava (he of the fatal ankle wound) versus Don Alvaro, Leonora versus her brother Don Carlo, the Franciscan friars versus the peasants and, finally Alvaro versus Carlo.

However, the piece of music that spurred me into obsession involved none of these activities. Instead it was the closing soprano aria, “Pace, pace mio dio,” a contemplative song that ends on an impossibly high and ethereal note—something only Verdi could have conceived with this much impact.

I was compelled to drag out my DVD and head straight for the final scene of the opera. In this particular production a youngish Juan Pons is Don Carlo. The rest of the cast, from a 1984 Saturday matinee performance by the Metropolitan Opera, is nondescript and relatively unknown—except for Leonora. Leontyne Price was 57 years old in 1984, yet she sings this role as if twenty years younger. Words cannot describe the restrained power she invokes as she delivers her plaintive song while standing in front of the hermit’s cave that has been her home for decades (don’t ask!). Naturally I had to see the opera through to its conclusion, where she is fatally stabbed by her brother who, having dueled with Alvaro, was himself at death’s door—or in this case, death’s cave entrance. Then I had to “rewind” to the opening of Act II and Carlos’ aria where he discovers that the man who saved his life is, ironically and fatefully, the one who (a) killed his father and (b) defiled his sister. I love the part where he says, in effect, I pray that this guy survives his war wounds so that I can kill him. Now that’s vengeance!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Reviewing “Norma”

A little more than a year ago, Opera Colorado GM Peter Russell revealed that the 2005-2006 season would include Bellini’s Druidic masterpiece, a first hereabouts. There were several compelling reasons that brought “Norma” to the Queen City of the Plains. First, the new opera house (then under construction) presented the sort of venue that made sharing productions with other companies economically feasible plus compatible, stage-wise. This particular “Norma” had enjoyed its debut in San Francisco. Second, Russell had managed to sign up a relatively unknown Armenian soprano to portray the title character—someone who was fairly new to the role but already considered one of its top interpreters. He wanted to ensure her availability for the four-performance run before she was booked elsewhere. Finally, OC was on the hot seat to deliver world-class productions as justification for its increased budget and higher ticket prices.

The term “bel canto” means “beautiful singing” and Vincenzo Bellini, with his dozen or so operas, was probably the most consistent purveyor of that musical style. Melodious arias, interrupted by equally melodious ensemble pieces, were his stock-in-trade. Especially for the higher voices (soprano / tenor), he composed long runs of notes and florid augmentations that show off a singer’s lyrical skills—or clearly demonstrate that they have none. Drama did not form an especially critical part of his work, even for storylines that were innately so.

The tale of “Norma” is certainly dramatic enough. The theatricality of an onstage love triangle—with confrontations, recriminations and rejections—is augmented by illegitimacy, a clash of cultures, and the abandonment of religious principles. The story makes sense, is told in a compellingly straightforward manner via a well-written libretto, and comes to a shocking conclusion—shocking to bel canto-era audiences, anyway.

So why was the “Norma” here so dull?

OK, maybe dull isn’t the right word. After all, the singing was (for the most part) gorgeous, the orchestra played exceedingly well, the set was—ummm—interesting, and the nearly full house was on its best behavior. But there was a definite lack of something. Maybe it was “drama”?

The title character was sung by Hasmik Papian. Her credentials include performances with most of the world’s major opera companies, including a stint as Aida for the Met. She has a smooth voice with the sort of complete range one wants in a bel canto soprano, and she made her top notes seem almost effortless—not “Anna Moffo effortless,” but pretty darned transcendent. The opera’s signature aria is “Casta Diva,” a showy piece that gives sopranos the chance to chew the scenery if they so choose. But Papian’s delivery was subdued, an approach that’s much better suited to the situation. This sort of portrayal might have been lost in a theater with poorer acoustics, but the fantastic sound quality of Denver’s new opera venue served her well in this interpretation. Throughout the performance, in fact, Papian was consistently the most compelling singer on the stage.

The character of Adalgisa was sung by Irina Mishura. She filled this role in the San Francisco production as well. Her voice stood well on its own and blended superbly with Papian’s during their duets. She was by far the most animated actor (more on this aspect below), with good stage presence and fine timing. Raymond Aceto was Oroveso, Norma’s father, with a rich baritone well suited to the seriousness of his role. And the audience seemed delighted to see local mezzo Jennifer DeDominici as the children’s maid, Clotilde. She sounded a lot better on this stage than she had (to my ears, anyway) in the half-dozen or so competitions I’d seen her in over the past several years.

Tenor Philip Webb, as Pollione, was adequate at best. Despite his character’s seemingly pivotal position as Norma’s former lover and Adalgisa’s current one, it’s a fairly forgettable role. In fact, toward the end of the opera when the two women are (a) confessing their undying friendship for each other and (b) trashing the man in their lives, one wonders why they don’t just run off together? Perhaps in a modern rewrite of the libretto, they would! Webb hit all his notes, but he didn’t cause much of a fuss in doing so. Since OC managed to cast two pretty strong female singers in the opera’s two most important roles, it almost didn’t matter that the Pollione here was a lightweight.

But, boy could he NOT act. At one point while Norma was downstage singing about something or other, he sort of wandered off to the rear of the set and turned his back on the audience, almost petulantly—except that would have caused him to actually show some emotion. My wife leaned over to me and whispered, “Is he taking a whizz, or what?” It sure looked like it. None of the other performers did much acting, either. I guess it’s a Bellini thing, or perhaps a bel canto thing—that Stand and Deliver mindset where all action (such as it is) grinds to a halt while the singer-of-the-moment belts out whatever words the librettist created for him or her.

Beautiful singing, for sure, but hardly much else.

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