Jan Grissom in Todi's Lucia
Todi's Eugene Onegin
The Tragedy of Carmen
Requiem for a Music Festival



The Todi Music Fest 2002 can congratulate itself for its ambitious production of Verdi's opera at Willet Hall in Portsmouth which was received with a standing ovation at the performance on Friday evening , July 26th.

Hugely responsible for its success was the casting of Marquita Lister in the title role of the slave/princess Aida. The rich quality of Lister's voice was perfect for the character, and her singing ranged from powerfully dramatic phrases to the softest high pianissimi tones that would be the envy of many sopranos. Visually Lister was lovely to watch, and her acting was sensitive and uncontrived. Musically she remained faithful to the score, and this writer believes that Verdi would have enjoyed Marquita Lister's portrayal of Aida!

Tenor Eduardo Villa as Radames knew how to "take stage". He used his powerful voice and presence to make it believable that he could be the victorious Egyptian conquerer as well as the object of affection of the two princesses Amneris and Aida. His Radames was romantic, proud and strong. Accused of being a traitor at the end of the Nile Scene Villa's delivery of the line: "Sacerdote, io resto a te!" ("Priests of Isis, I surrender to you!") was an exciting high point of the performance.

Louis Otey used his voluminous dramatic baritone voice and imposing physical presence to portray King Amonasro with strength and conviction. In the Nile Scene duet with Aida he demonstrated vocal versatility in his expressions of fatherly love, anger, disdain and power, which he used to force Aida to deceive and betray Radames.

Italian mezzo-soprano Patrizia Patelmo as Amneris received audience approval at the final curtain for her angry characterization of the proud and jealous Egyptian princess.

Other well-cast roles were Stephan Kirchgraber as Ramphis, Andrew Martens as the Pharoah The King of Egypt, Bobby Brinkley as A Messanger and Lori Zeglarski as The High Priestess.

Especially impressive was the chorus, masterfully trained by Judith Clurman. The number in the chorus was small for a Verdi opera, but their sound was so solid and unified with such clear diction that it seemed like a larger group. Kudos to conductor Walter Attanasi and members of the Virginia Symphony for an excellent orchestral reading of this difficult Verdi score!

Roberto Oswald's unit set design with relatively easy set changes was able to reflect the grandeur of the opera with appropriate visual changes. Audience applause was the response after each set change. Linda Brovsky's stage directing was quite effective because the characters were text motivated. With more lavish sets and props, rather than the unit set, there might have been more visual possibilities. Stacy Caddell's choreography also made a positive contribution, as did the costumes done by Anibal Lapiz.

The writer of this review has some questions about the use of the animals. Is my assumption correct that they are the pets of the Pharoah that are brought out to help celebrate the victory? If so, don't you think they should be dressed up for the occasion (except for the snake)? The Egyptians put elaborately decorated collars on their cats, for instance. Something glittery hanging around the tiger's and the lion's neck would make them look royal, although all we saw of the lion on the cart was her back and tail as she faced upstage last night! The elephant would have looked stunning with a brightly colored cover across his back. My heartiest congratulations to the cast members who carried the snake across the stage! Did you volunteer, or were you regular snake handlers in costume? I wish the animals had been able to stay on stage longer, or perhaps made a second and third entrance across the stage.

Shirley Thompson

Jan Grissom, the Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor

      Jan Grissom, the Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Todi Festival, was a marvelous singer. The second part of the mad scene was played with such intimate pathos that it alone was worth the price of a ticket. "Hearing Jan Grissom sing each rehearsal perfectly time after time feeds the soul" was Charlene Marchant's comment a few day later. Ms. Marchant sang in the chorus and found the tenor Jianyi Zhang (Edgardo) to be a really nice person. We liked his singing better than the reviewer in the Virginian Pilot. The stage direction was silly at times, placing each of the principal characters singing on their knees at least once during the performance and in Ms. Grissom's case, lying on her back staring at the ceiling. It struck us as unnecessary and unnatural in an otherwise naturalistic production.

Musings on TodiFest's Eugene Onegin

      July 30, 2007. We saw the final event of the Todi Fest, Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin and were impressed. The quality of the singing, the careful attention to details of staging and all the work on language added to the authenticity of Russian words paired with Tchaikovsky's lovely, lyrical music. Assistant Conductor Andrey Kasparov's nephew who lives in Russia and is in the U.S. in a student/worker program, commented that he could understand the singers' Russian quite well.

      The plot, based loosely on a verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, comes across as a "True Romance" novel. Two sisters, one outgoing (Olga) with her poet boyfriend (Lensky) and her sister (Tatyana), a dreamy, bookish, quiet type, live on a somewhat run-down country estate with their friendly, befuddled, widowed mother. Lensky brings his friend Onegin to visit. Dreamy sister falls in love, stays up all night pouring out her naive heart to the jaded, sophisticated twenty-four year old Onegin who has just inherited a nearby estate. He is touched by her sweet honesty but is less than interested and tells her so.

      At Tatyana's name day ball a tense Onegin flirts and dances with Olga all evening to tease his friend Lensky. The joke backfires. Lensky feels betrayed by both and challenges Onegin to a duel and is killed. Onegin, devastated by what he has done, leaves the country to travel abroad. Two years later he returns and goes to a ball at Prince Gremin's, only to find Tatyana married to Gremin for almost two years. He is suddenly as overwhelmingly in love with her as she had been with him. She sees him privately and even admits to still loving him but with new found maturity and confidence sends him away. Tragic, perhaps but several of the women who sat near us cheered her decision. I agree with them. Onegin is a "quester", who relishes the pursuit. He is not the husband type. She is married to an older man who appreciates and loves her. She made a practical decision based on experience. What's so tragic about that?

      Sondra Gelb as Filipyevna,Tatyana and Olga's nanny, gave a stand-out performance as the old servant. In Ms. Gelb's hands, a role that is lackluster in Bernd Weikl's film (now on DVD) with Sir Georg Solti and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, becomes an integral part of this psychological family drama.

      Alan Fischer, Vocal Music Chair of the Governor's School for the Arts, created a charming character role as Monsieur Triquet, the girl's elderly French tutor. He delivered the birthday greeting song in impeccable French at Tatyana's name day country ball. The chorus was made up of some of Tidewater's best singers and they gave an energetic boost to the opera. The GSA was well represented by current and recently graduated singers as was the case with the America Idol Opera Contest which included students from local universities.

      It is interesting to know that all of the lead roles were played by American singers, except for Oksana Krovytska (Tatyana), who was born in Ukraine and trained at the Kiev Conservatory. She has spent ten years at New York City Opera and other houses and this is her first opportunity to sing this role since she left Kiev. A bit more youthful sparkle in her characterization of the young Tatyana would have been welcome. Though the restrained, duty-bound outcome as a married woman does fit with her characterization and her mature sound was appropriate.

      Timothy Mix as Onegin has great facility in mastering the sung Russian in his gorgeous baritone but his characterization lacked the sexual danger of the self-indulgent bad-boy. That kind of self-confidence in a role will most likely come with repetition.

      Rod Dixon as Lensky and in his recital at Hampton University produced a beautiful legato. His characterization of the ardent young poet was believable but clarity of text is sacrificed to an overall pleasing vocal sound that creates great excitement with its ringing resonance.

      I decided not to read the review in the newspaper until I saw the opera. It is apparent that uneven orchestral playing was the price paid for hiring a non-union orchestra as stated in Lee Teply's review. I found the painted flats made an effective set. Putting more of the resources toward the singers and less toward sets suits this listener and his friends well, though we all missed the professional Virginia Symphony players we've grown to expect.

      In the Todi production only in the scene where the challenge is made does the opera reach a high level of intensity. It is a psychological examination of mental states that flow like an easy river with a lush, lovely, often gentle, musical backdrop. If you want to hear an alternative approach get the film. Or wait to see the Virginia Opera production next year and see if it adds to the experience.

Robynne Redmon Sings Carmen in Suffolk

      The Todi Music Fest of Portsmouth, in its fifth season, has expanded to present programs in surrounding Hampton Roads cities. A newly refurbished hall in downtown, Suffolk's Center for Cultural Arts was the venue for The Tragedy of Carmen, an adaptation by Peter Brook, a famous English theatre director, of the Bizét opera.

      The high quality of the singing was what this evening was all about for me. Mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon's creation of Carmen was completely believable. Even though the production was highly stylized, I was totally charmed by her flirting with Don José and found myself laughing quietly for the joy of it. Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith as José sang with power, nuance and a ringing tone.

      I will not repeat what was said in Lee Teply's insightful Virginian Pilot review but offer some background information I have gleaned from the cover story from the November 1983 Opera News Magazine. Brook's picture is on the cover and he discusses the details of his production.

      With a cast of only six singers and a small chamber orchestra, this was a lean, clinical examination of a tragedy. In Bizét's original there is a sense of danger created, a fear of what is to come for these young lovers, but not here. Their plight is narrated but not dramatized. From the beginning we are entertained by our favorite arias in French while we are told the story in English dialogue and supertitles through to Carmen's inevitable death. The production is less than ninety minutes and played without intermission.

      This opera "lite," less expensive to mount and designed to appeal to a musical theatre audience, came to life in 1981 in Paris at a decrepit old theatre on a stage covered with dirt. Peter Brook brought his "musical and dramatic fireworks" to Lincoln Center in 1983 with an orchestra of fifteen and a return to the original gritty tale of Prosper Merimée's 1845 book. It won a Tony Award for musical theatre.

      Accompanied by the overture, and played in a circle of light with the rest of the almost bare stage in shadow, the opening is a mime of the first meeting of Carmen and Don José where she flirts with him and seductively tosses a rose on the ground, forcing the naive soldier to kneel to pick it up. Micaëla, who does not appear in the book, is played by Janinah Burnett, who sings like an angel. She is a peasant girl from Don José's home town and comes to bring him money and news from his mama. In Brooks' Carmen Micaëla is the first to sing and the scene eventually ends in a cat fight between her and Carmen - unthinkable in the opera. In the opera, the demure Micaëla, the girl next door, is contrasted with the wild, passionate Carmen and her erotic allure. But that moral contrast is lost in Brooks' rewrite. These characters are puppets manipulated by fate, having no choice in what unfolds.

      An added element from the book was Carmen's gypsy husband Garcia, mimed by Ricardo Meléndez, who was also fight director and choreographer for the production. Garcia is a character in the book. Here he comes into the story to interrupt Don José and Carmen's romance in full flower. Improbably, Don José kills him in a knife fight.

      Escamillo, the current favorite bullfighter and Carmen's other love interest, knows how to flirt with Carmen without commitment. In the final scene of the last act of the opera, as in this play, Carmen, outside the bullring where she's come to see him fight, shares a tense and highly emotionally charged encounter with Don José. In the middle of this, for no apparent reason, Escamillo is carried across the stage on a stretcher, interrupting the dramatic flow. Jeff Morrissey's woody bass voice and his agile stage physicality (fancy cape work) was powerful in creating his character. Terry Jernigan as the Army captain Zuniga and Paul Danaher a Lillas Pastia the innkeeper rounded out a most excellent cast.

      Peter Brook emphasizes the drama over the music. When the brassy prelude to the bullfight (March of the Toreadors) is played over loudspeakers in full orchestration, it was jarring to hear. Its abrupt end followed by a prominent piano accompanying the final death scene only reminded us of the richness that Brook had stripped away. Like so much entertainment today, his focus on action ignoring motivation and human emotional elements left us with an empty feeling rather than the catharsis of great art.

      The Suffolk performance is a good but limited introduction to the grandeur of the original Bizét opera. Fortunately for those of us who want to plunge into the depths of this drama, Virginia Opera opens the new season with Carmen.

Requiem for a Music Festival

It only seems fair to say goodbye in print to the Todi Music Fest of Portsmouth, Virginia, which brought us a grand opera each summer, beginning in 2002 with Virginia's first and only production of Aida. Howard Bender and the board used every resource they could find to produce a spectrum of programs. Classical music aficionados will have a much duller summer this year.

My goal here is to say goodbye by highlighting a very effective endeavor begun only in 2007. In 2006 Rod Dixon, a wonderful lyric tenor, created the role of Tonio in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. Though there were African-American adults and high school students in the chorus, there were no black college students. Mr. Dixon expressed his concern. Since he would be returning to sing Lenski in the 2007 opera Eugene Onegin, Todi's premiere event, he made the effort to network with the teachers at the historically black universities here. Out of this came the new program creating a contest that would award the winners with paid apprenticeships in the chorus of Eugene Onegin. It was named Rod Dixon's American Opera Idol. Prior to the main event, semifinal contests were held at three local universities, Hampton, Norfolk State and Old Dominion. Two contestants were from the Governor's School for the Arts, a high school level program.

It was a fine evening of entertainment and a great deal of fun for the listeners at Grove Baptist Church, Portsmouth, July 26, 2007. The contest allowed eight students to compete for a $1000 cash prize and trip to Los Angeles to see Dixon perform. Grove Baptist Church, Rev. Melvin Marriner, senior pastor, provided $1500 to make these prizes possible. Dixon has said that Todi is the only music festival in the country that has partnered with historically black colleges to provide access and training in opera productions. We were especially pleased that the vocal teachers of these accomplished young people were highlighted by Todi Music Fest Director and emcee Howard Bender in brief interviews.

The contestants were Rachel Boyd (NSU, Patricia Saunders Nixon), James Harris (NSU, Patricia Saunders Nixon), Jasmine Harris (Hampton, Charlene Marchant), William Huggins (Hampton, Lorraine Bell), Justin Merreck (Hampton, Shelia Maye), Frederick Ballentine (Governor's School, Charlene Marchant), La Tetra Lewis (Governor's School, Charlene Marchant), and Erin Hannon (ODU, Kerry Jennings).

The stunningly beautiful winner, Jasmine Harris, in a flowing gold gown, sang the tremendously challenging aria Come scoglio by Mozart from Cosi Fan Tutte. Her teacher at Hampton University and a favorite recitalist of this writer is Charlene Marchant.

Lorraine Bell was an early consultant for Mr. Dixon and her work was instrumental within the university community in bringing the program about. She continues to be a strong advocate for the program. Her student William L.H. Huggins entered the contest at her urging. Here is his letter that eloquently speaks to the need for such a contest.

April 5, 2007

To Mr. Dixon, Mr and Mrs. Bender and Dr. Jarrett,

First Dr. Jarrett, I would like to thank you for bringing Rod Dixon's American Opera Idol to Hampton University and the Hampton Roads area. You have provided an amazing platform for young upcoming artists to be exposed to the industry. To be judged and critiqued by one of America's most noted tenors is an experience in itself.

As a sophomore here at Hampton I never thought about competing in an opera competition. Mrs. Bell told me about the competition and I decided to give it a shot. Now I have been chosen as a semi-finalist. Even if I had not been selected, it would have been a good experience. Thank you so much for seeing the potential in this country boy from South Carolina.

I thoroughly enjoyed the "round table" discussion after the competition. Being able to learn about our experiences and get advice was very rewarding. Rarely do young people get the opportunity to meet and have that one-on-one session with people who have "made it" in the industry. So much was gained and again I thank you. I look forward to seeing you all again in July.

William L. H. Huggins

Review Index

Printer Friendly Format

Home  Calendar  Announcements  Issues  Reviews  Articles Contact Us