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April 28, 2013
Review: 'The Pirates of Penzance' blends music, comedy

By Michael Saffle Special to The Roanoke Times

Correction (April 28, 2013, 6:56 p.m.): John Tiranno plays the character of Frederic in Opera Roanoke's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," and Scott Williamson conducted. The review has been corrected.

Friday night's sold-out Jefferson Center audience lavished laughter and applause on Opera Roanoke's production of "The Pirates of Penzance."

Created by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, "Pirates" opened at London's Opera Comique in April 1880. The show is known as a "Savoy Opera," after the Savoy Theatre where later Gilbert and Sullivan hits were first performed.

Gilbert created a saucy, satiric libretto, for which Sullivan composed music occasionally as lovely as Mozart's. The perennial problem is how to combine musical loveliness (and wit) with low puns and lots of on-stage joshing.

Opera Roanoke's conductor and general and artistic director Scott Williamson and his minions let the music speak for itself. Several cast members, on the other hand, kept the audience laughing with their lively antics. When they also sang and danced to Williamson's baton, things went swimmingly.

John Tiranno played Frederic, a young pirate-apprentice who falls for Mabel (played by Ariana Wyatt ), one of the aging Major-General's pretty wards. John Dooley shone as the Major-General, while Bradley Smoak proved a dashing Pirate King.

Striving to break with his ocean-going companions, Frederic helps the Major-General marshal a troop of comic policemen to fight them. The police run away. More details might spoil things for Gilbert and Sullivan novices, but watch out this afternoon for Leap Year's Day 2076 and a guest appearance by "queen" Victoria.

Friday's production featured some excellent music. A breathtaking ensemble performance of "Hail, Poetry" was received with stunned silence. Most of the time, however, there was lots of applause.

And there was plenty of fun. The faux-ballet Dooley contributed to "Sighing Softly," a lilting parlor-song parody that was worth the price of admission.

Wyatt possesses a coloratura's skill and a stand up comic's sense of timing. She was especially wonderful in Act I. Smoak sang with flair, as did police sergeant Andrew Potter .

The only zircons among Friday evening's diamonds were contributed by Suzanne Oberdorfer as Ruth. When Oberdorfer sang out and followed Williamson's lead, all went well. When she stepped away from Sullivan's score, however, things went awry. Her second-act costume, though, was a hit.

The sets designed by Jimmy Ray Ward and Laurie Powell-Ward were entirely successful. So were most of the other costumes, although one blue-clad chorine looked like a 10-year-old girl. Too youthful for piratical hanky-panky.

"Pirates" concludes Opera Roanoke's 2012- 13 season. A second performance is scheduled today at 2:30 p.m. at Jefferson Center.

Michael Saffle is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

September 23, 2012
Review: A breathtaking ride with 'Flying Dutchman'

By Michael Saffle Special to The Roanoke Times

Friday evening a surprisingly small Jefferson Center audience heaped applause on Opera Roanoke's remarkably skillful performance of "The Flying Dutchman."

Richard Wagner began writing his "Dutchman" in 1840 while he was living in Paris. Although he later criticized fellow composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, it was Meyerbeer who encouraged Wagner to finish the show. The completed "Dutchman" was first presented two years later in Berlin.

Wagner never lacked for enemies. German critics initially disliked the "Dutchman" for its gloomy, folk-like plot (colorful historical dramas were all the rage) and challenging harmonies. In fact, Wagner's music sounds a lot like Meyerbeer's, with plenty of stirring parts for low brass and woodwinds.

Everything Wagner composed for the stage, including his "Dutchman," is long. Nevertheless, it's shorter than any of his other music dramas, and it features a half-dozen good tunes: the kind fans hum on their way home from the theater.

The Roanoke production stars Ryan Kinsella as the cursed Dutchman, condemned by the devil to sail forever around the world unless he can find a girl true to the bitter end. Julia Rolwing plays Senta, the very girl he's been seeking. Matthew Curran plays Daland, Senta's money-grasping father, who pushes his daughter and the Dutchman together for a sack full of jewels.

Erik, who also loves Senta, is sung - perhaps too loudly - by tenor Bryan Register. Tenor Scott Williamson, on the other hand, momentarily steals the first-act show as the steersman who falls asleep at the wheel of Daland's ship.

Except for a few string passages, the orchestra, conducted by Steven White, sounded wonderfully clear and clean. Kinsella's skillful, somewhat understated Dutchman offset Rolwing's passionate, moody, and lyrical Senta. Unfortunately, a few of Rolwing's high notes sounded forced, perhaps because her role, like all of Wagner's, is so demanding.

A couple of caveats: The chorus could have used another rehearsal, although they looked good on stage. Two of the spinning wheels at the beginning of Act II were pretty wobbly. And it's difficult to tell from the printed program who's appearing in which part. Why not a cast list?

Wagner was born in 1813. Trivial? Perhaps not. "The Flying Dutchman" is not only Opera Roanoke's first 2012-2013 production. It's possibly the first-anywhere Wagner production of the forthcoming bicentennial year. Too bad more people weren't on hand Friday evening to enjoy a performance just short of perfect.

Michael Saffle is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

The Roanoke Times, Letter to the Editor, Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Free Taubman event had a great show, Anyone who did not attend the Taubman Museum's Spectacular Saturday's event (which is free, by the way) on Saturday afternoon missed a truly spectacular performance featuring Scott Williamson, general and artistic director of Opera Roanoke. Not only did we hear his lyric and expressive tenor voice singing American and British folk ballads inspired by paintings in the museum's American and Contemporary art galleries, we were also highly entertained by Williamson's extensive knowledge, appreciation for and understanding of the artists and their works. Congratulations to the Taubman's Cindy Petersen for presenting this most innovative and exhilarating melding of music and art. We look to this important Roanoke Valley artistic resource for more programs of this kind in the future. Sage Bassett, Daleville [commenting on "Listening to Paintings"].

Review: 'Carmen' comes through in solid style

By Michael Saffle Special to the Roanoke Times

A sold-out audience showered applause Friday evening on Opera Roanoke's thoroughly enjoyable performance of Georges Bizet's "Carmen."

"Carmen" is Opera Roanoke's last 2011-2012 production. A second performance will take place today at 2 p.m. at Jefferson Center. Bizet's masterpiece was first performed - to boos and catcalls - in 1875, on the very day its composer was inducted into the Legion of Honor. Parisian listeners apparently expected a happier ending and a less obtrusive orchestral accompaniment. What they got were marvelous melodies and a lot of the military music French audiences usually love, together with a tale of romance gone very wrong.

For modern audiences, the show's troubled lovers, large cast, exotic setting, and mostly musical storytelling call to mind Broadway's megamusicals. Think "Evita"or "The Phantom of the Opera," but with better tunes. (Sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

In fact, the weakest moments in "Carmen" are the sung recitatives, added after Bizet's death to confirm the work's operatic status. Fortunately, some of the spoken dialogue survives.

Carla Dirlikov played and sang Bizet's title role with panache and considerable rhythmic freedom. Philip Alongi as Carmen's lover-turned-killer Don Jose, and Jerett Gieseler as the arrogant bullfighter Escamillo, also presented their parts confidently. Gieseler looked especially formidable during the famous "Toreador" song, and he tossed off several imaginary shots of rum with aplomb.

Mother's Day Serenade, May 8th, 2011

I hope the people of Roanoke know how blessed we are to have such talent perform for us! Thank you! - Cam, OR Friend, May 2011

Congratulations! What a fantastic afternoon of music and opera. Throughout, I had to pinch myself to remember that such innovative and challenging music was being done in Roanoke. Thanks, - Bruce, OR patron, May 2011.

Friday, May 20, 2011 - AMADEUS Review, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, By M.D. Ridge

"The sextet of soloists was equally remarkable, most notably Scott Williamson (Tamino's impassioned aria) and Amy Cofield Williamson's impeccable brilliance..."

Monday, May 02, 2011 - Concert review: Conductor Steven White, RSO members were in fine form, By Seth Williamson, Special to The Roanoke Times

After the massive opening chords, guest conductor Steven White maintained a pulse that kept straining forward. ...White always seems to get the best efforts of these players. This was a richly detailed performance, with deftly controlled dynamics and a sure architectural conception of the work from beginning to end... Especially fine was the soulful "Andante," overflowing with heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism, its melodic stream skillfully shaped by White. The entire woodwind section sounded as if it were kidnapped from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, especially the clarinets.

Madama Butterfly Review, The Roanoke Times, March 19, 2011, Seth Williamson

"Grand opera - complete with staging, sympathetic characters and great tunes - was back Friday night before a sold-out house at Shaftman Performance Hall in Jefferson Center. After several concert productions minus the bling, Opera Roanoke revived colorful sets and costumes, not to mention acting, for its spring production of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." There'll be one more performance Sunday at 2:30 p.m., although it, too, is sold out.

March 13, 2011
Opera Roanoke performance of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" to be steeped in passion, star power

Amid the chaos in rehearsals for Opera Roanoke's "Madama Butterfly," the artists never fail to impress.
By Mike Allen

To fully understand how good professional opera singers have to be, perhaps you have to see them in rehearsal.

Opera Roanoke Executive Director Scott Williamson calls opera "the most expensive form of art." He's overseeing a new production of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" that happens to be the financially beleaguered nonprofit's first fully staged opera in more than two years.

It comes at a steep price, $150,000 to $200,000, according to Williamson -- with expenses trimmed to the bare bones.

What does that money buy? Elaborate rented sets and costumes. And cast members in key roles who already know their parts, backward, forward and sideways. Before you assume that's just a figure of speech, picture this.

The afternoon of March 2 in Jefferson Center's rehearsal hall, yellow tape on the floor outlines the dimensions of a set that hasn't yet arrived. The cast is working through the opening scene, in which U.S. Navy officer B.F. Pinkerton inspects a house he has purchased in Japan. The man who arranged the deal, Goro, has also arranged a marriage for the American, with 15-year-old Cio-Cio San, known as "Butterfly."

Virginia Chorale member Scott Crissman plays the conniving Goro, while New York tenor Christian Reinert, tall and square-jawed, brings enigmatic, narcissistic Pinkerton to life.

On the second day of rehearsals -- less than three weeks before the first show -- the singers are starting to work with blocking. They move inside a taped-off rectangle that simulates the approximate dimensions of the paper-walled Japanese house, occasionally walking down smaller rectangles that represent front steps. Symmetrically arranged music stands represent the walls and doors.

Just a few minutes of rehearsal provide evidence of the singers' remarkable powers of concentration. As they practice their parts and Williamson accompanies by either playing the music on piano or singing the notes, director Cynthia Oxberry interrupts constantly.

Oxberry, who holds assistant director positions with both the Washington National Opera and the LA Opera, has arrived with strong ideas as to how these characters should behave, and what that means in terms of what they do where on the set.

Every change in the music cues actions onstage. Oxberry stops the actors, shows them what she wants them to do, has them start over from just seconds earlier. Time and again, stopped after intervals of minutes or even a few seconds, the players are able to start singing perfectly from whatever place they're told to begin, and quickly memorize Oxberry's instructions while they're doing it.

Many of the players aren't just veterans of "Madama Butterfly," but veterans of Opera Roanoke's 2002 performance of the Puccini favorite. Yunah Lee played Butterfly in that production, too, and mezzo soprano Eunjoo Lee (no relation) is reprising her role as the maid servant Suzuki. Williamson himself played Goro.



Congratulations on a magnificent show! I thought the entire opera [Madama Butterfly] was just wonderful and moving and I just wanted to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of it! I had so much fun and I loved working with everyone. I learned so much in such a short period of time. Thank you so much for taking a special interest in helping one of your young artists "learn the ropes." I loved being up on stage and I cannot wait for the next time I get the opportunity to do it again!
- Brooke, OR Young Apprentice Artist, Radford University Student, March 2011

Opera Roanoke conductor Steven White makes debut at the Met
April 9, 2010 The Roanoke Times
By Mike Allen

A New York arts scene scandal has opened up the opportunity of a lifetime for Opera Roanoke conductor and artistic director Steven White.

Wednesday, White made his debut as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera during its performance of the classic Giuseppe Verdi staple "La Traviata," the tragic tale of a courtesan dying of tuberculosis who meets the man who may be her true love. The current production stars world-renowned soprano Angela Gheorghiu and baritone Thomas Hampson.

Despite the potential pressure involved in stepping into a spot that's the opera equivalent of coaching a team in the Super Bowl, White seemed well on top of things in an interview last week.

"My collaborators are the best in the world at what they do," he said. "I'm anticipating that I'll have a great time."

White will conduct the Metropolitan Opera orchestra again Saturday. His premiere in the nation's most prestigious opera venue made national news as he became one of three cover conductors (a role similar to an actor's understudy) to step in after the departure of the production's original conductor, Leonard Slatkin.

According to a story in The New York Times, Slatkin had originally been designated to conduct a lavish production of the modern opera "Ghosts of Versailles." Yet in a cost-saving measure, the Met chose to put on "La Traviata" instead -- an opera that, it turns out, Slatkin had never conducted before.

Despite an effort chronicled on his Web site to learn the opera, Slatkin's opening night efforts March 29 were savaged by critics. New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini wrote, "I have seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and a cast at the Met."

On April 1, Slatkin withdrew from the production "for personal reasons," The New York Times reported.

White has served as a cover conductor for the Met in four productions, starting with Bellini's "La Sonnambula" in 2008. Much of this has involved conducting rehearsals. "This is the first one where I'm actually called upon to conduct a performance," he said.

White declined to comment on the developments with Slatkin. He did note that he has conducted "La Traviata" before, and the first time he did it was for Opera Roanoke.

Regardless of how he fares at the Met, White said he's looking forward to Opera Roanoke's next show, a concert performance of the tragic tale of murder and madness, "Lucia di Lammermoor," happening April 30 and May 2.

Without his experience in Roanoke, he wouldn't be where he is now, White said.




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