Never a company to shy away from challenges, this summer’s risk-taking
resulted in a stunning new production of John Adams’ The Death of
Klinghoffer. Since its 1991 debut, Mr. Adams’ opus has had a somewhat
rocky, even notorious history. Never has it seemed more topical, all the while
it remains highly controversial. Consider the premise: using the actual
historical event of a Muslim terrorist group’s heinous murder of a
wheelchair-bound elderly Jewish cruise ship passenger as a dramatic
springboard, the piece distills that cowardly, vengeful action into a forum for
both political sides to lament and document the personal losses resultant from
past and present conflict in the Middle East.
That this is a contentious basis for an opera, there is no doubt. But the
creators have responded with a gut-wrenching, transformative work of art that
promotes dialogue as much as it abhors terrorism. The composer and librettist
Alice Goodman successfully walk a fine line by balancing the angry group
dynamics motivating socio-political (mis-)deeds, with the real, personal, human
cost reaped by those swept up in an unending, violent response to historical
forces. Without respect to the Unities, the creators alternate solo scenes
(largely monologues) and impressions of the passengers, crew, and attackers on
the ship Achille Lauro with haunting choral pieces of aching, sinewy pain and
beauty. Indeed, these powerful ensembles are among the very finest moments John
Adams has composed to date and here they were performed with ravishing
musicality and laser-beam dramatic intensity.
Every Festival has one standout star performance and this year that
distinction belonged to the Gerdine Young Artists ensemble for their impeccable
work here. This exceptional training program is not only the heart and soul of
OTSL, it is its raison d’etre. Season after season young singers are
developed in a nurturing yet intensive program that not only enhances the work
at hand but invests in the future. Just check out the program and see how many
2011 principals began their association with OTSL as apprentices. A remarkable
success story. The solid work was matched by an exciting roster of soloists.
Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer wins our hearts, as she must. She has
been given a marvelously varied scena to close the show, its vocal demands as
wide-ranging as its emotions which span anguished loss, unbridled anger, and
hopeless resolution — a potent distillation of Middle East truth and
consequences in one, unbearably intense Geschrei. Ms. Maultsby is possessed of
an uncommonly rich mezzo, unwavering at full dramatic force, and meltingly
responsive in the role’s legato passages. (Coincidentally, Nancy is a former
Gerdine Young Artist.)
Christopher Magiera displayed a suave lyric baritone which he put to fine
use as the insightful, tormented Captain. In he title role, Brian Mulligan
excelled in his dynamic solo moment. Adams makes us wait a long time for
Klinghoffer to have his say, and when he did, Mr. Mulligan made it well worth
the wait, as he determinedly took the stage with his intense, commanding
baritone. Paul La Rosa effectively doubled as a tremulous First Officer, then
an unrelentingly determined Rambo, pinging his powerful baritone off the back
wall. And, strapping in his wife beater tee shirt, Mr. La Rosa also managed to
out-Gunn Nathan in the Muscles Parade. Tenor Matthew DiBattista’s effective
Moigi pinned our ears back with ringing, secure high notes. Laura Wilde’s
clear, throbbing mezzo made a fine case for Omar’s stirring monologue.
First among equals was arguably Aubrey Allicock, whose distinctive
bass-baritone rolled forth with chilling effect and complete assurance. Mr. A
is singer with a great gift and great potential. Without reverting to
stereotypes Lucy Schaufer created three diverse characters as the Swiss
Grandmother, Austrian Woman, and British Dancer. Her polished mezzo and
confident acting made each turn highly individual.
(L to R) Laura Wilde as Omar, Brian Mulligan as Leon Klinghoffer, Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer, and Paul LaRosa as Rambo
Michael Christie led a tightly controlled and stylistically diverse reading
of this unfamiliar piece, managing at once to make it both challenging and
accessible. Adams’ usual throbbing rhythms and melodic angularity are
tempered with long stretches of undulating, rippling aural effects that suggest
the sea. And there are moments of great repose, reflection, and resolution that
are unique (in my experience) in the Adams canon. The first rate
instrumentalists responded in turn with force, incisiveness, delicacy, and
The design team provided a performing environment well nigh unto perfect,
stylized and simple. The varied, ever shifting projections (fine work by Greg
Emataz) evoked the sea and eternity all at once. The show began in silence with
a bone-chilling image of an empty wheelchair, down lit with a harsh white-hot
spot. After a sudden, sharp retort of rifle fire, a torrent of water gushed
down from above, brutally pummeling the chair.
The movable wall panels suggested the hull of a ship with expert texturing
and a trim of rivets. Carefully selected set pieces and exquisite lighting from
Christopher Akerlind were all that was needed to work theatrical magic and
create diverse locations. James Schuette’s detailed and evocative period
costumes were highly effective.
James Robinson’s direction of the chorus was superb to say the least. His
masterful use of the simplest of props, suitcases in this case, first
establishes that they are Palestinian refugees. By turning the cases and
setting them on end as headstones, we are effortlessly transported to a Jewish
cemetery. And in a brilliant stroke, they were piled up to create a
wall/settlement that spoke volumes about the physical and social barrier that
exists to this day.
Mr. Robinson also blocked his soloists exceedingly well, more often than not
trusting them to be physically still as they delivered monologues rife with
sub-text and inner life. Having the invalid Klinghoffer stand and deliver his
final solo while his wheelchair, hooked to a fly line, ascends to the loft was
yet another indelible moment.
The Death of Klinghoffer was of a quality and significance that it
would be at home on any world stage. One minor quibble: I dearly wish that cast
and conductor had continued the mood through to a sober curtain call. Audience
approval prompted big, happy smiles from a few and I wasn’t ready to smile
The Adams was decidedly not the only treat to be savored. The Festival’s
lone comedy proved to be a delectably frothy The Daughter of the
Regiment. Director/choreographer Sean Curran skillfully served up a lavish
dessert buffet of a show without over-dosing on sweetness. Mr. Curran managed
this by mixing in a hint of starch and a dash of cynicism, and by staging the
whole with musical comedy precision and savvy. The spot-on ballet goofs that he
created for Marie and a corps of (real) dancers to open act two, was a
refreshing addition. If the leading characters spoke their lines with just a
twinge of Dudley DoRight, operatic-singerly declamation, well, they landed the
jokes without fail so it didn’t seem to matter.
(L to R) RenÈ Barbera as Tonio and Ashley Emerson as Marie
James Schuette came up with a jewel box of a set design, and vibrant
costumes, the whole shebang being persuasively “old-fashioned” down to
having a circle of footlights created from halved military snare drums. Rarely
do you get to experience such a loving recreation of a bygone production style,
utterly free of irony or condescension. Christopher Akerlind devised yet
another clean lighting design.
Daughter is one of those operas that can make an impression whether
as a showcase for leading world stars (Sills, Sutherland, Dessay, Pavarotti,
Florez) or up-and-coming talent such as St. Louis fielded with the wonderfully
paired Ashley Emerson (Marie) and RenÈ Barbera (Tony).
Ms. Emerson has a crystal clear, pliable coloratura instrument which she
skillfully negotiates with assurance and panache. Her forays “in alt” were
reliably steady, and her silvery soprano carries well. Ashley is also possessed
of a winning presence and she gamely pulls off every comedic turn that is asked of her. If she
does not yet have the final measure of poignancy in her Act One farewell to the
troops, I have no doubt that time and experience will lead her to that skill.
And…she is cute cute cute. Blond, lovely, and petite as a Kristen Chenoweth
Action figure, Ashley Emerson delivers a star turn.
RenÈ Barbera complemented her perfectly, and his warm, sturdy tenor was a
perfect fit not only for the technical demands of the role but also for its
temperament. There is more to the part than the high C’s after all (which he
nailed), and Mr. Barbera’s slightly bearish physique and sweetly expressive
face stood him in good stead in winning audience sympathy.
(L to R) Dale Travis as Sulpice, Ashley Emerson as Marie, Dorothy Byrne as the Marquise of Berkenfeld, and Jason Eck as Hortensius
Dorothy Byrne was a glamorous Marquise of Berkenfeld with a more
aristocratic mezzo and demeanor than is usual for a role usually essayed by
‘character’ performers. Dale Travis brought years of experience and a
sturdy baritone to his broad take on Sergeant Sulpice.
Operatic-soprano-turned-cabaret-artist Sylvia McNair gifted us with a
well-received Duchess of Crackenthorp, dropping topical punchlines with
precision and tickling us with an inserted novelty number about a diva who has
a bad sense of pitch.
John McDaniel kept everything bubbling along merrily in the pit. The maestro
proved to be a capable collaborator who, with his excellent cast, treated us to
an effervescent afternoon. Only the Act Two trio for Marie-Tonio-Sulpice failed
to fully ignite, coming off as cautious rather than breathless. Nonetheless,
what a succulent confection.
Masterpiece though it may be, PellÈas and MÈlisande is never
going to be on the Opera Hit Parade. Dark, diffuse, elusive, the Debussy opus
resists accessibility. It reminds me of a film of recent years In the
Bedroom, in which, save one cathartic event, all of the emotional
‘action’ is under the surface. If you are willing to immerse yourself in
Debussy’s musical pallette there is much to be mined. If not, there is always
intermission, in which about one quarter of the unmoved patrons chose instead
to ‘move’ to the exit.
To their credit, the production team made an earnest effort to make
Maeterlinck’s ambiguous tale resonate. Paul Steinberg (Set Design) Constance
Hoffman (Costumes) and especially Adam Silverman (Lighting) devised a suitably
vague abstract world, a universal playing space peopled by recognizable
archetypes. Mr. Silverman’s well-considered area specials and quicksilver
lighting changes were models of invention, and Mr. Stenberg’s Marimekko-like
green and white leaf pattern on the walls and floor were particularly apt as a
constant reference point amid fluid shifts of well-chosen set pieces.
David Alden’s direction proposed that the story veils a hushed-up history
of sexual threats and physical/emotional abuse. This jives well with the
heroine’s protestations of “Don’t touch me.” It wears less well as the
evening progresses, with Golaud becoming more and more relentlessly brutish,
and the nerdily dweebish title hero becoming more emotionally paralyzed than
Hamlet on downers. Stuck in the middle of these widening poles, poor MÈlisande
appeared more tediously catatonic by the minute. In the end, by trying to
infuse the piece with a specificity out of today’s headlines, Mr. Alden
actually made the piece lose its special character which allows each of us to
devise our own scenario as to what has happened, and what will happen to the
characters in this realm of imagination and speculation.
Stephen Lord elicited well-judged, idiomatic playing from his band. The
whole reading had a wonderful, evocative arc that was ethereal, yes, but also
explosive on those several occasions that demand dramatic fire. For me, this
opera’s language is so specific to the musical texture that it just does not
soar in English. Diction was fine, translation was all right, but the
vernacular robbed the soloists of those slightly covered vowel sounds that help
inform the vocal line.
(L to R) Corinne Winters as MÈlisande and Liam Bonner as PellÈas
Of the cast, only veteran John Cheek embodied the right “sound” with his
orotund, slightly grainy bass in wonderfully plangent form as Arkel. Gregory
Dahl’s blustery Golaud found his baritone a bit short of oomph on the bottom
which caused him to slightly distort vowels in an effort to inject some heft in
the lower reaches. Mr. Dahl’s middle and upper registers rang out
convincingly, and his acting as a menacing, tortured soul was wholly
persuasive. Maria Zifchak’s stirring tones and commendable control in the
brief role of Genevieve left us wanting more from this fine artist. Michael
Kepler Meo arguably stole the show as Yniold with his responsive boy soprano
and his focused, purposeful acting.
In the title parts, Liam Bonner and Corinne Winters were ‘almost’ all
one could wish. Mr. Bonner has at his disposal a smooth lyric baritone which he
uses with great musicality. He essays the sustained forays around the top of
the staff with considerable skill, although the handful of the very highest
forte notes in his final confrontation were just at (though not beyond) the
limit of his resources. Ms. Winters for her part showed off a medium bodied
lyric with well-honed technique, capable of considerable nuance, and
comfortable throughout the wide-ranging part. What both singers lack at this
point, alas, is either a unique timbre, and/or the ability to sustain a
plaintive vocal appeal that the greatest interpreters brought to the piece
(think von Stade and Stilwell).
Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni
Still, what a pleasure to see such a polished mounting of this challenging
work, marked by the highest professional standards and characterized by a
dramatic interpretation worthy of continued consideration and discussion.
OTSL was slightly less well-served by the roster’s bread-and-butter title
Don Giovanni. Not that there weren’t many enjoyable components in it
— there surely were. But they stubbornly refused to gel.
Bruno Schwengl’s sets and costumes were all over the place from period
fantasy looks to rather bland modern dress. His sets were generally
flat-looking, and somewhat confusing. What those two blue boxy sit-’n’-spin
playpens were in the scene when the Don first encounters Zerlina is anyone’s
guess. The cartoonish plinth for the Commendatore’s statue didn’t partner
well with the prone, naked, painted-gray-like-stone dancer who first posed as
an inert sculpture then later came to life came to life.
(L to R) Kishani Jayasinghe as Donna Elvira, David Portillo as Don Ottavio, and Maria Kanyova as Donna Anna
Nor were the proceedings really helped by James Robinson’s and Michael
Shell’s fitful direction, although there were some intriguing ideas put forth
that then sadly died on the vine. After visually suggesting at the end of the
first scene that Donna Anna and Ottavio are having an aggressively active sex
life, the concept is never developed. After Leporello starts the show by
turning upstage and taking a leak on the wall at overture’s end, that
irreverence never takes hold, and rather descends into a tiresome series of
frat boy jokes and boorish behavior which endears us to neither of our two Bad
Boyz. A rather promising device of having spectral supers haunt Giovanni’s
misdeeds is sporadically potent, although when they strip him of his earthly
trappings before throwing him into hell, they demurely stop after the shirt. If
you’re going to set up the expectation of that imagery, then take it all off,
The staging tripped over its own good intentions, leaving a cast of fine
singers to interact with each other without really bonding. The relationship
between Leporello and his master was particularly un-engaging, all rough and
tumble surface macho posturing. Levi Hernandez has all the goods for a fine
Leporello, mind you, showing us good buffo sensibilities and a solid bass. And
boy-band-handsome Elliot Madore has a warm, virile baritone that indeed falls
very pleasantly on the ear. But there is more to the Don than a shirt open to
the navel, restless swaggering, making ‘sexy’ faces, and arching the
eyebrows. Elliott, don’t just do something, stand there! And let it emanate
Maria Kanyova was wholly successful as Donna Anna, her reliable, gleaming
soprano giving much pleasure. But her acting seemed to be more about technique
than inner fire on this occasion. Maybe I was just distanced by her puzzling
blond wig (although Ashley Ryan contributed otherwise outstanding hair and
make-up design for all four pieces). David Portillo was a marvelous Ottavio,
with good starch in his character and a honeyed lilt in his tenor. Although
deprived of “Dalla sua pace” he scored a bullseye with “Il mio Tesoro”
(or whatever they were in English). While Kishani Jayasinghe has not just yet
solved every challenge of Donna Elvira (the opera’s most complex role), she
treated us to many exciting moments with a golden, even soprano that had hints
of Freni. Andrew Gangestad was an imposing Commendatore with a penetrating
(L to R) Kishani Jayasinghe as Donna Elvira, Bradley Smoak as Masetto, Levi Hernandez as Leporello, Kathryn Leemhuis as Zerlina, David Portillo as Don Ottavio, and Maria Kanyova as Donna Anna
The two Mozart stand-outs for me were the fresh-voiced Zerlina from animated
mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis, and the robust Masetto from Bradley Smoak. Ms. Leemhuis
was a breath of fresh air: spontaneous, honest, and vocally assured; and Mr.
Smoak’s attractive, manly baritone had rich presence and power. Indeed, I
believe young Bradley might make a dynamic Don someday, sooner rather than
Since I so greatly admire Maestra Jane Glover, I wish I could say that the
musical reading was at her usual high standard. But I found the orchestra while
playing cleanly, sounded dry; and while the whole was well paced and musically
sound, it lacked the inner drive that is so evident in Glover’s finest
The Death of Klinghoffer
The Captain: Christopher Magiera; First Officer/Rambo: Paul La Rosa; Swiss
Grandmother/Austrian/British Dancer: Lucy Schaufer; Molgi: Matthew DiBattista;
Mamoud: Aubrey Allicock; Leon Klinghoffer: Brian Mulligan; Omar: Laura Wilde;
Marilyn Klinghoffer: Nancy Maultsby. Conductor: Michael Christie. Director:
James Robinson. Set Designer: Allen Moyer. Costume Designer: James Schuette.
Video Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz. Lighting Designer: Christopher
Akerlind. Sound Designer: Mark Grey. Wig and Make-up Design: Ashley Ryan.
Choreographer: Sean Curran. Chorus Master: R. Robert Ainsley.
The Daughter of the Regiment
Hortensius: Jason Eck; Marquise of Berkenfeld: Dorothy Byrne; Peasant: Clay
Hilley; Sergeant Sulpice: Dale Travis; Marie: Ashley Emerson; Tonio: RenÈ
Barbera; Corporal: Matthew Hanscom; Duchess of Crackenthorp: Sylvia McNair;
Notary: Kyle Erdos Knapp. Conductor: John McDaniel. Director and Choreographer:
Sean Curran. Set and Costume Designer: James Schuette. Lighting Designer:
PellÈas and MÈlisande
Golaud: Gregory Dahl; MÈlisande: Corinne Winters; Genevieve: Maria Zifchak;
Arkel: John Cheek; PellÈas: Liam Bonner; Yniold: Michale Kepler Meo; Shepherd
Voice: Sidney Outlaw; Physician: Allen Boxer. Conductor: Stephen Lord.
Director: David Alden. Set Designer: Paul Steinberg. Costume Designer:
Constance Hoffman. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman.
Leporello: Levi Hernandez; Donna Anna: Maria Kanyova; Don Giovanni: Elliot
Madore; Commendatore: Andrew Gangestad; Don Ottavio: David Portillo; Donna
Elvira: Kishani Jayasinghe; Zerlina: Kathryn Leemhuis; Masetto: Bradley Smoak.
Conductor/Fortepiano: Jane Glover; Stage Directors: James Robinson and Michael
Shell. Set and Costume Designer: Bruno Schwengl. Lighting Designer: Christopher
image_description=(L to R) Brian Mulligan as Leon Klinghoffer and Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre Saint. Louis]
product_title=Opera Theatre Saint Louis 2011
product_by=By James Sohre
product_id=Above: (L to R) Brian Mulligan as Leon Klinghoffer and Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre Saint. Louis