Central City Opera: Rocky Mountain High

Clearly the production team has endowed the staging with top-notch values,
starting with Ken Cazan’s fluid, meaningful, resourceful stage direction.
Thornton Wilder’s play that is the basis for this adaptation is, of course,
celebrated for its non-linear theatricality, for breaking the fourth wall, for
espousing profound truths with pithy means. Mr. Cazan has not only mined all
the humanity in the well-known tale, but has even expanded its impact by
nurturing a good deal of ‘poetry’ to emerge from Wilder’s deliberately
homey prose.

He was enabled in his achievement by a nonpareil design team that made
uniformly splendid contributions starting with the scenic environment created
by Alan E. Muraoka. The choice of a plain stage floor and upstage wall of
rough-hewn planks ably suggested New England, and proved a suitable neutral
milieu that was a welcoming space for the addition of minimal set pieces placed
by the actors. Mr. Muraoka also incorporated telling projections of sepia-toned
photographs, some of the actual cast, that immeasurably added to the clarity of
the narrative without ever overpowering the live action.

OURTOWNDrMrsGibbs.gifKevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

Costumer Marcy Froehlich has attired the cast in appropriate period regional
dress that conveys their characters, singly and collectively, in highly nuanced
and meaningful ways. Ms. Froehlich’s brilliant look for the minor personage
of Mrs. Soames, all frills and finery and anything-but-the-usual-matron, was
remarkably fine. Only one costume choice nagged at me: the Stage Manager in
modern black disco-ready-dress with contemporary two-way headset and even a
thermal drink cup. I appreciate the thought, but with the rest of the palette
so subtly unobtrusive, this one anachronistic touch seemed self-conscious.

David Martin Jacques designed a lighting plot that was nothing short of
exquisite. His subtle uses of pinpoint accurate isolated spots, gobo washes,
perfectly calibrated fades, chilling back-lighting, and varied color filters
was a veritable stage lighting Masters Class. Perhaps the highest praise for
the collective technical achievement of Mssrs. Jacques and Muraoka, and Ms.
Froehlich is how effortlessly and inevitably it all unfolded to the point of
being sensed rather than noticed. Bravi tutti!

Mr. Rorem was fortunate indeed to have a (mostly) young and thoroughly
accomplished cast to ennoble his score. The anchor of the piece was the
accomplished soprano Anna Christy as Emily Gibbs. Ms. Christy is radiant in the
part, believably youthful, sweetly endearing, and displaying a soaring lyric
soprano that has never been heard to better advantage. The local mines around
these parts can’t have an ounce of silver left in them since it all seems to
have taken up residence in her throat. There was not a phrase Anna sang that
was not deeply affecting, whether it was the conversational exchanges casually
tossed off during courtship, the despairing post-mortem plunges to the depths
of the chest voice, or the enchanting arcs and leaps to the stratosphere. Emily
owns the last act, and Anna Christy made the extended scena her own
with a traversal of such intense and flawless vocalization I can hear it

OURTOWNWedding2.gifBehind, L to R: Anna Christy as Emily Webb, Vale Rideout as Stage Manager, William Ferguson as George Gibbs, Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs, Kevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs; in Foreground: Claire Shackleton as Mrs. Soames. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

William Ferguson was a perfect match as her love interest, the slightly
gangly, earnest George Gibbs. Mr. Ferguson modulated his pure, clear tenor to
good effect and exerted utter control in flights to the upper regions. Although
the tone is slender, he has excellent projection and superb diction, and his
collegial musicality made the important George-Emily duets real highpoints of
the evening. Vale Rideout made an indelible impression as the Stage Manager,
mastering some cruelly high and exposed pronouncements with professional skill,
and meandering his way around multiple Britten-esque melismas with aplomb. Mr.
Rideout has had considerable success with such parts and it is easy to see why.
He has a reliable technique and he skillfully uses it to master every challenge
of such wide-ranging, musically diverse vocal writing. Moreoever, Vale has an
easy, natural stage demeanor that is effortlessly engaging.

Kevin Langan’s solid, orotund bass was an excellent match for the role of
Dr. Gibbs, and he memorably dominated the scene chiding his son to chop the
wood for his mother. Phyllis Pancella proved a thoroughly lovely Mrs. Gibbs,
her plangent mezzo falling easily on the ear. Her graveyard advisories and
weighted asides were hauntingly beautiful. As Mr. Webb, John Hancock not only
had a towering physical presence but had a voice to match: a mellifluous,
responsive baritone that rang out soundly in the house. Sally Wolf was a fine
partner with her sympathetic Mrs. Gibbs, her individual, opaque mezzo adding
variety and texture to the vocal roster.

This performance also featured two talented young artists whose stock is no
doubt on the rise. As Mrs. Soames, Claire Shackleton wrung every possible
effect out of her brief turn while singing with a ripe mezzo of polished sheen
and warmth. And Kevin Newell treated us to an appealing, well-focused tenor,
and proved to be a touching embodiment of the drunken choir master Simon
Stimson. Both singers made mighty, moving contributions to the graveyard scene
ensembles. Though having less meaty assignments, there were solid additions to
the evening’s success from Robert Murphy (Joe Crowell), Alexander Elliott
(Frank), and Isaac Bray (Sam) whose horse play, high spirits and robust singing
enlivened Act One.

Whether Our Town is a great opera, time will tell. What I can tell
you now is that this was a great production, owing in no small part to the
assured and sensitive conducting from Christopher Zemliauskas. The Maestro got
maximum effect from Rorem’s small orchestration, eliciting a great variety of
color and even a suggestion of plush ensemble from his small, talented group.
His coordination with the stage was immaculate, and he drew exceptionally
sensitive singing from the soloists as well as Levi Hammer’s well-tutored

OURTOWNFuneral.gifVale Rideout as Stage Manager, Claire Shackleton as Mrs. Soames and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.]

I have great admiration for Ned Rorem as one of America’s finest, most
prolific song writers. He is almost unmatched at setting texts and creating
accessible yet fresh melodies. While his harmonic vocabulary comes across to me
as largely neo-classical, and while there are moments in the compact score that
recall other big name composers, he has proven over the years to have his own
voice. Still, as the evening progressed, I did wonder if Mr. Rorem was too
often taking an easy, “accessible” way out. Themes that have an initial
appeal seem to either get truncated or fail to fully blossom into something
more engaging or enduring. J.D. McClatchy’s libretto, while functional,
occasionally slips into rhymes of the “Roses are red, violets are blue” ilk
that are jarringly not Wilder. At opera’s end, I found myself wondering if
the authors just might have set out to simply create a piece with a popular
title and modest requirements that may encourage wider performances. I think
that they could have been substantially more diligent in meaningfully serving
the source, Our Town.

For proof positive that a composer and librettist can not only perfectly
serve their source material, but actually improve upon it, we had only to wait
until the sparkling performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Since my
last experience with Rossini’s classic comedy was a dreary and charmless
production at the very festival named for the composer, I can happily report
that CCO has out-Pesaro’d Pesaro with a bustling, effervescent,
laugh-out-loud-funny staging peopled with some of today’s best young

Daniel Belcher was a firecracker of a barber, and his bright, vibrant
baritone served the role of Figaro well. Animated and witty, Mr. Belcher showed
off an uncommonly wide range which encompassed some astonishingly easy, ringing
high phrases. While his Largo al factotum was the usual crowd-pleaser,
truth to tell it came across as just a bit noisy and rhythmically unruly. But
once past that well-beloved set piece, Daniel settled down to a finely-drawn
vocal portrayal that was steady and incisive.

BARBERAlmavivaRosina.gifDavid Portillo as Almaviva and Jennifer Rivera as Rosina. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

Statuesque Jennifer Rivera was not only the very funniest Rosina I have ever
seen, she was also one of the most musically impressive, starting with a tone
as sumptuous as heavy cream. Moreover, she commands a striking ability to
retain an evenness of production from top to bottom and back again as she
tosses off coloratura with aplomb and distinction. This was clearly not Ms.
Rivera’s first encounter with the role since she brought a wealth of seasoned
detail, effortless grace, and practiced humor to her characterization. Jennifer
can execute a dead-pan ‘mug’ with a comedic accuracy that would rival Carol
Burnett, and her ‘take’ after Lindoro reveals his true identity was alone
worth the price of admission.

As Almaviva,/Lindoro David Portillo was so dapper and well-scrubbed that it
was easy to understand why he would intrigue the oppressed heroine. The fact
that his well-schooled tenor is sweetly communicative completes the seduction.
Mr. Portillo has stage savvy to spare and he throws himself into his disguised
visits to Bartolo’s house with abandon. His lisping, over-the-top music
master yielded especially fun-filled results. In a role that can be the most
ungrateful in the opera, David scored a solid success owing to his winning
personality and committed, balanced vocalizing.

Arguably the show’s very finest singing came from the accomplished
Bartolo, Patrick Carfizzi (and how often can one say that about a
Barbiere performance?). Mr. Carfizzi’s impressive bass is as
powerful as it is handsome. Make no mistake, he certainly knows how to use a
full arsenal of buffo vocal tricks and colors to nail his laughs and etch his
scheming Don, but then he can suddenly take our breath away with a finely sung
declamation that is remarkably elegant. This was Rossinian (or
‘anyone-else-ian’) singing and acting of the highest order, a sublime

BARBERBartoloBasilio2.gifPatrick Carfizzi as Bartolo and Grigory Soloviov as Don Basilio. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

If Grigory Soloviov’s Basilio was not quite in the same league, it
nevertheless had much to recommend it such as a lanky physicality and an
equally imposing, sonorous bass instrument. La calunnia was a bit
under-characterized and the sustained top tones, though well-tuned, tended to
turn diffuse. Once past this first scene however, Mr. Soloviov seemed to
noticeably relax his stage deportment, and a pleasant ping ingratiated itself
into his increasingly pointed singing. Alexandra Loutsion’s bounteous mezzo
gave much pleasure and contributed substantially to the ensembles. Given an
usual amount of stage time, Ms. Loutsion relished the opportunity and she
landed every recurring sneeze gag with precise timing. There is a velvety
richness and refinement in her voice that madeIl vecchiotto cerca
a real pleasure (rather than the more usual audience endurance test
as a character mezzo “acts” her way through it in the late autumn of a

Shea Owens began the afternoon with great promise, his turn as Fiorillo
well-served by his smoothly produced baritone with its attractive youthful
bloom. And Ian O’Brien actually threatened to steal a scene or two (or three)
with his scruffy, bewildered Ambrogio. Indeed when he was given a lengthy
sustained note to sing in an improvised moment of recitative, Mr. O’Brien not
only stopped the show, but his accomplished outburst left us wanting more. Much

Conductor John Baril kept the musical side of things percolating along.
Maestro Baril accommodated and partnered with his singers with skill, and he
made some bold choices of tempo for a few of the most well known moments. The
orchestra acquitted themselves cleanly if without a distinctive flair. If I had
one wish, it would be that the large ensembles, especially the Act One finale,
could have been tighter. Perhaps it was the busy staging, but there seemed to
be few avoidable lapses in coordination that briefly marred an otherwise wholly
creditable afternoon of bubbly music-making.

BARBERFigaroRosina.gifDaniel Belcher as Figaro and Jennifer Rivera as Rosina. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

How does a director approach such a thrice familiar repertory staple? I
always find that first it is best to stay honest to the piece, and if you
can’t be, then at least stay out of the way. Director Marc Astafan was most
successful when his staging was most truthful which is to say much of time. He
also excelled at creating fresh business during the recitatives that filled out
the individual characters, their motivations, and their unique quirks.

But Mr. Astafan was less accomplished at the large group scenes that were
prone to busy-ness for its own sake. Some of the amassed forces are required by
the score, but others were invented and imposed on the comedy, sometimes to its
detriment. Figaro’s entrance involved his pulling an elaborate traveling
salesman’s wagon on and attracting a crowd. Not a bad idea but it got reduced
to bopping and bouncing mute choristers pulling focus from one of opera’s
most famous arias. Wiggling rumps back and forth in unison is not a visual
counterpart to Rossini’s wit.

I do applaud the individualization of ensemble members but let’s please
keep them in character and in the character of the work. Having nuns hike up
their skirts and goofily hoof it out of the rainstorm is more American
vaudeville shtick than 19th Century Italian operatic performance practice.

On the other hand, making the would-be lovers act undeniably horny in the
lesson scene yielded excellent opportunities. Their outrageous smooching and
rolling around behind Bartolo’s back seemed aptly inspired by commedia
dell’arte. I didn’t envy Mr. Astafan’s need to move his cast around a
crowded, smallish stage. It sometimes required “blocking by the inch” and
the traffic management of both finales was expertly managed.

Arnulfo Maldonado provided a very workable set design, dominated by a
spectacular two-tiered, circular wrought iron structure that at once suggested
a birdcage and a Spanish mansion. That magnificent framework afforded
surprisingly many uses of levels and entrances with the simple addition of a
flown front gate, suitably effective set pieces, and a scrim as the grand
drape. Sara Jean Tosetti’s lively, fanciful costumes added immeasurably to
the audience-pleasing success of the proceedings, although when Figaro donned
his hat something about his look found me recalling Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka,
a Freudian leap best left unexplored. Mr. Jacques’ well-judged, vivid
lighting left nothing to be desired, and Dave Bova’s wig and make-up design
served the performers well.

At eighty-five hundred feet above sea level, if the ‘high’ quality of
these two festival productions is any indication, Central City Opera is scaling
the heights in every way.

James Sohre

Production and cast information:

Our Town

Stage Manager: Vale Rideout; Dr. Gibbs: Kevin Langan; Mrs. Soames:
Claire Shackleton; Geroge Gibbs: William Ferguson; Emily Webb: Anna Christy;
Mrs. Webb: Sally Wolf; Joe Crowell: Robert Murphy; Frank: Alexander Elliott;
Sam: Isaac Bray; Lady in Balcony: Leah Bobbey; Man in Audience: Jason Ryan; Mr.
Webb: John Hancock; Simon Stimson: Kevin Newell; Mrs. Gibbs: Phyllis Pancella;
Conductor: Christopher Zemliauskas; Director: Ken Cazan; Set Design: Alan E.
Muraoka; Costume Design: Marcy Froehlich; Lighting Design: David Martin
Jacques; Wig and Make-Up Design: Dave Bova; Chorus Master: Levi

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Fiorello: Shea Owens; Count Almaviva: David Portillo; Figaro: Daniel
Belcher; Rosina: Jennifer Rivera; Don Bartolo: Patrick Carfizzi; Berta:
Alexandra Loutsion; Ambrogio: Ian O’Brien; Don Basilio: Grigory Soloviov;
Official: William Dwyer; Notary: Welsey Gentle; Coductor: John Baril; Director:
Marc Astafan; Set Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti;
Lighting Design: David Martin Jacques; Wig and Make-Up Design: Dave Bova;
Chorus Master: Levi Hammer

image_description=Anna Christy as Emily Webb and William Ferguson as George Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.courtesy of Central City Opera]
product_title=Central City Opera: Rocky Mountain High
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Anna Christy as Emily Webb and William Ferguson as George Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.courtesy of Central City Opera]