Sunday, July 25, 2004

Opera season falls short of expectation

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

Catherine Malfitano and Richard Leech starred in Carmen
(Philip Groshong photo)
Some of the magic was missing from Cincinnati Opera's summer season this year.

True, the company introduced some superb young singers, notably Celena Shafer as Marie in Daughter of the Regiment, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni.

But tired productions and wooden staging marred several offerings. It didn't help that Denyce Graves had to cancel singing her trademark sizzler, Carmen, which ends the season today (3 p.m. in Music Hall). Catherine Malfitano substituted in the title role, but her first foray as the gypsy seductress lacks sex appeal.

Artistic director Nicholas Muni has broadened the company's scope with at least one "stretch" production annually. This year, the stretch was the company's intense double bill, pairing The Emperor of Atlantis, composed in a concentration camp, with The Maids, by Swedish composer Peter Bengtson in its North American premiere.

It was an artistic coup - but was it too much intensity for one night? Although the reviews were good - including in the Wall Street Journal - Cincinnati's reception of it was poor.

"I think somebody that creative, with the kind of theatrical instincts (Muni) has, is not necessarily going to knock it out of the park every single time," says Brian Kellow, editor of Opera News, in town to review Don Giovanni and Carmen last weekend. "But that kind of imagination and desire to do new things is very, very rare. There's a definite point of view that he has, and I don't think there are that many producers and artistic directors who have that."

What: Last performance of Cincinnati Opera's Carmen.
When: 3 p.m. today in Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine.
Tickets: $25-$130; student rush $10, 75 minutes before the show. (513) 241-2742, or online at
Here's what a few Enquirer readers had to say about the season, via e-mails:

Silva Schuster of South Bend, Ind., thought Carmen was "painful."

"For me, the most jarring, and almost ugly aspect of the production was the placement and action, or rather no action, of the chorus in the last act ... and truly awful lighting. A little light, color and some movement could have helped this production.

"I had the privilege of seeing Denyce Graves at the Lyric (Opera of Chicago) last year in Carmen ... The fireworks she ignited were something to behold. In the tavern scene, she threw Jose on a bed and straddled the fellow. You really got the sense that sex was her allure."

Mary E. Hill, of Dayton, left Carmen at intermission. "This was my first opera experience, and I was really disappointed. I thought it was dull, dull, dull, with no spark or sauciness."

Virginia and Bill Rouslin of Montgomery enjoyed Carmen. "We were up close enough to see the acting, which is as important to us as the singing. I think (Richard) Leech (Don Jose) and Malfitano did very well," says Virginia Rouslin. "I loved (the singer who looked like) Johnny Depp, aka the matador. He really was preening and looked like he was looking for a mirror, all the while he sang his love to Carmen."

Many opera fans enjoyed Don Giovanni, a revival starring New Zealand baritone Rhodes as the charming rapist-murderer.

"It was a lot better than the Met," says Lily Waissbluth of East Walnut Hills. "All the roles were so well cast. ... It's the first time we've seen a Don Giovanni with that physique. And Leporello was just perfect. We enjoyed the opera till the end, and left Music Hall totally elated."

"Teddy was obviously HOT. I am of course, speaking for my girlfriend and from the observation from the audience as he took off his shirt at (the July 16) performance," says Michael Moore of Pleasant Ridge.

Kate Greene of Wyoming, adds, "The best part for me were the sets. I thought they were magnificent."

Marybeth Kantner of Indian Springs was not impressed with Don Giovanni. "The voices were lovely, but no one gave me chills. The women strode across the stage like 21st-century women - not 18th-century ladies in gowns."

Several readers, including Peter B. Webb of Hyde Park, were unhappy that lengthy operas had just one intermission. He also wondered about the mix of old and new.

"It seems there is no theme to the opera seasons," he says. "Is it enough to jusify any opera selection by 'clever' settings or by the desire merely to introduce something new? What is the philosophical approach?"

Opera lovers' opinions were split about the double bill.

Longtime subscribers Betty and Gerald Cavanaugh of Monfort Heights wrote: "The Maids had few redeemable qualities. We are not alone in that opinion. Many of our acquaintances said, 'Worst opera I've ever seen.'"

Moore of Pleasant Ridge thought Muni did a good job "relating the horrors of dictatorship" in The Emperor, but he disliked The Maids.

"My objection was mostly the screeching voices," he says. "I was not offended, as many were, by the nudity... I was not happy that this gritty theme was not carried out to a better, more horrific, conclusion."

But Jerry and Jeanne Rape of downtown were thrilled by the double bill.

"What a superb beginning - the big brother propaganda screen and the 'zombies' on the rubble landscape set the tone for a thoroughly engaging performance," wrote Jerry. "Like it or not, they were riveted. ... Similarly, The Maids was also excellent. Voices, visuals, score - it was a thriller.

"We're big fans of Nic Muni's work as both artistic leader and stage director. Cincinnati Opera can only 'come of age' on the national scene if it dares to tackle the new with the same loving care it gives to the opera ABC's (Aida, La Boheme and Carmen)."


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