Tidewater Opera Initiative Thrives! & presents
Mozart's The Impresario & Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
Hugh R. Copeland Center, August 6, 2017
Review by John Campbell

The seats were all full at the last of three performances of two short operas for TOI's fifth summer season production. Stage director Shelly Milam-Ratliff wrapped the comic The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor was Mozart's German title) around the story of casting a production of Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas.

In a spoken role, the impresario, Sarah Kingsley, is working hard to get her fledgling opera company's first production on stage. At the audition table she is seated with her assistant and friend, baritone Steven Fielding and Michael Gray, the company's patron who just happens to be sleeping with the two sopranos competing for the leading role: Anna Feucht in the role of a well-known diva whose vocal powers are “fading” (she handled Mozart's florid passages excellently then swanned her way off the stage) and a naïve Erin Hannon, a rising coloratura with a spectacular voice, who holds her own in the competition.

The text, rewritten in contemporary terms, was a very funny, tongue-in-cheek exploration of operatic pretensions and diva behavior. All the singing was in German and was pure Mozart and more than filled the 100-seat space. Stephen Z. Cook, on an electronic keyboard, delineated the piano accompaniment with clarity.

After tenor Michael Gray joins the divas in the trio I am the prima donna, a compromise is finally reached—a large salary and star billing for each soprano and later a surprise. Dido will actually be sung by Stephanie Marx!

As the company stages Dido and Aeneas the comedic antics continue "off-stage" through the overture and musical interludes while Purcell's tragic opera is played straight. When the Trojan prince Aeneas (sung excellently by Steven Field) and crew is shipwrecked on Carthage, the widowed Queen Dido reluctantly gives-up her mourning black and falls in love with Aeneas. She is attended by Belinda, her lady-in-waiting, well-sung by Christina Bartholomew, and the Second Woman, the sparkling Denise Battle, and all of her court (the well-trained chorus, included many present and past Governor's School for the Arts Vocal Music Department students as well as some excellent mature voices) prepared by Dr. Cook. The string quartet: Beth Austin, violin I; Jeff McLaughlin, violin II; Bryan Williams, viola; and Joseph Bray, cello, join Cook at the electronic harpsichord, all conducted by Steven Brindle who superbly paced the lively performance.

In a power-play, seated on a throne on the platform stage, the Sorceress conjures a storm to end the lover's bucolic day of hunting in the country. One of the witches disguised as the god Mercury (Ms. Kingsley) reminds Aeneas of his duty to go found Rome, the new Troy. Aeneas believes it is the will of the gods and is torn between duty and love and love loses. A sailor (tenor Gray) gets the crew ready in Come Away Sailors and as they depart Dido stabs herself after singing a stunningly rich, beautiful legato When I am Laid in Earth.

Adriane Kerr's make-up as the Sorceress was complex and effective and the power of her voice and acting was superb. After Dido's death she put on her crown—the power struggle was over. Lindsey Marie Kowalik as First Witch used her high soprano from her Impresario audition in this role. Mezzo-soprano Nerissa V. Thompson as the Second Witch was very effective. There was lovely singing throughout from the 15-voice chorus robed in black, and often folded over with their heads on the floor.

TOI offered the most complex, fully developed evening of entertainment in their 5 years of performances. Lighting Designer Ben Steinhauer used light to great effect, especially pronounced in the diva dust-up in The Impresario and in the sorcery scenes in the last act of Dido. And we must not forget the choreographers Christianna Casey and Madison Mattfiled who worked out all those movements in a limited space. The Marketing Intern & Stage Manager was Hannah Dewing. Founding member and now Executive Director Kathryn Kelley introduced the opera, reminding all of us that the group is indeed fulfilling their mission of highlighting and celebrating the vast amount of local musical talent as well as the ongoing need for donations.

I'll close with a bit of research for your amusement. In July of 1786 the first performance of The Impresario K. 486, took place at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna on a double bill with an opera by Antonio Salieri. Earlier in the year Mozart had set a Dido's lament with text by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) from Didone abbandonata, K. 486a Basta vincesti . . . ah non lasciarmi, no. It can be found on a CD: Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart, track 4.

Steve Brockman Sounds-Off about Venues

The venue for Impresario/Dido was the Hugh Copeland Center, located in Norfolk's trendy NEON district. This space had distracting light coming in from one side and a low ceiling (unfriendly-to-high-voices) and a flat floor that allowed only those sitting on the first three rows to easily see the action. A short friend who sat on the back row could see only the upper part of the Sorceress sitting on her throne.

Over the past 5 years we've seen TOI productions at venues as challenging as Zeider's hole-in-the-wall American Dream Theater and as excellent as Norfolk Collegiate's Hackney Theater. Between these extremes they've performed at GSA's Blackbox—tiny but with good acoustics and riser seating, the old Hurrah Players theater—tiny and claustrophobic and Slover Library's Community Room with its good sight-lines and a two-story-high ceiling that's great for voices.

TOI's consistently first-rate productions deserve a venue worthy of their high vocal and performance standards. What Norfolk/Virginia Beach needs is a venue like Christopher Newport University's Music and Theater Hall (recently renamed Peebles Theater), a hall that is equally good for intimate chamber music, chamber opera or theater. Dare we hope the new Zeider's Theater now under construction at Town Center will fill the bill? Could a young company like TOI afford the rent?

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