Late-Winter Opera in Minnesota

The Twin Cities host Donizetti and Shakespeare rarities

With roots stretching back four decades, the Minnesota Opera has performed in St. Paul’s acoustically splendid Ordway Hall since 1985.

One of the most distinguished, adventuresome regional companies in the United States, in recent years it has augmented a commitment to contemporary opera—“Nixon in China,” and the national première of “A Handmaid’s Tale”—with an exploration of less performed bel canto works, including “Armida” and “Semiramide.”

This year brought a highly worthwhile exhumation—Donizetti’s 1841 “Maria Padilla” on March 5. The only American staging in living memory, in Omaha, in 1990, featured the then-unknown Renée Fleming. The story—of an ambitious noblewoman secretly married to Pablo the Cruel of Castile, who, in the final version, at least, insists on her marital rights in the face of a royal French alliance—requires some indulgence, but the characters are strongly drawn and the dramatic situations reasonably exciting.

As in “Lucrezia Borgia,” Donizetti constantly redefines the formal structures of arias and ensembles. Most striking is a three-part aria sung by the heroine’s outraged father, Don Ruiz. Driven mad by shame and a beating ordered by Pedro, the old man vents his emotions and confusion with his daughter’s guilty, anguished comments interspersed. Initially confined to a cage like Handel’s not dissimilar tenor father Bajazet in “Tamerlano,” Bruce Ford scored a real triumph here. Throughout, his superb style, clear diction and technical finesse proved highly impressive; some of the highest phrases showed a bit of dryness, but Ford is a complete artist.

Local favorite Brenda Harris returned as the determined Maria, moving like a prima donna with admirable assurance; her trills are particularly skilful and the timbre is beautiful at lower dynamics. But Norma and Chrysothemis have left their traces on her Handel-trained voice, and a distinct edge asserts itself under pressure. She is not a perfect singer, but is a commanding and stylistically informed interpreter of this repertory.

Ashley Holland, a bit stolid as the swashbuckling Pedro, has a soft-grained baritone of somewhat limited projection, but handled the music with sensitivity. Karin Wolverton brought a crystalline, agile soprano to Ines, the seconda donna role. Also notable was the performance of tenor Theodore Chietsos as her fiancé and mezzo Anna Jablonski’s as the duenna.

Francesco Maria Colombo wielded the skilled orchestra with Donizettian flair, pacing surely. José Maria Condemi’s direction hewed a sensible line between melodrama and stylization (the latter mainly in skilful deployment of the fine chorus). Visually, the evening offered evocative but non-realistic sets by Cameron Anderson (the throne room lined with empty picture frames a particular coup) and superb costumes by Gail Bakkom, all strikingly lit by Michael Murnane.

Next year at this brave opera company: Saverio Mercadante’s “Orazi e Curiazi” (with Harris and Scott Piper) plus David Walker and Christopher Schaldenbrand in the American première of Petitgirard’s “Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man,” well received when introduced in Prague in 2002.

The following day I witnessed an excellent production at the Guthrie Lab Theatre in Minneapolis of Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” which figures about as obscurely in its creator’s canon as “Maria Padilla” does in Donizetti’s. This least substantial—on paper—of Shakespeare’s “romance” plays sometimes comes in for critical drubbing. The picaresque plot depends on astonishing coincidences, sudden tragedies, hidden dangers, miraculous redemptions and unforeseen reunions—in short, the stuff of opera. Actually, I was struck by the similarities—in events depicted, if not in tone—between “Pericles” and “Candide.”

The Guthrie dates back to the early 1960s and has long fostered important work and theatrical talents, both for its region and for the national stage. Like many of the Twin Cities’ cultural institutions, including the Minneapolis Public Library and the Walker Art Center, the theater is in transition. Somewhat controversially, its old facility is being demolished for the Walker’s expansion, and a spectacular new facility designed by Jean Nouvel is taking shape across the Mississippi River, due to open in May 2006. The lab is a fine, comfortable experimental space in the city’s warehouse district, sometimes configured in the round but had a more traditional playing space for “Pericles” in a production by Joel Sass of pure magic.

Since Pericles is Prince of Tyre, and his adventures take place in and around Asia Minor, the present day Turkey, Syria and Lebanon (Antioch, Tarsus, Pentapolis Ephesus, Mytilene), Sass and his designers (John Clark Donahue, sets; Amelia Busse Cheever, costumes; Marcus Dillard, lighting) went for a “timeless” Middle Eastern look. Donahue worked wonders.

A slightly raked, large, round millstone disc formed the main playing area, with a large portal behind it through which glimpses of the various locales were ingeniously suggested with projections, scale models and—in the case of the all-important sea—undulating ribbons reminiscent of Giorgio Strehler’s “Tempest.” Sand played a prominent role as well, especially in the mellow interventions of the poet Gower, who narrates (Shawn Hamilton, sly and sonorous). Caparisoned in Cheever’s rich and atmospheric outfits, an ensemble of eight actors played the work’s more than 20 characters. Though I had studied the doublings and treblings beforehand in the program, I didn’t always recognize the performers as they varied identities.

Most striking was Kate Eifrig, who twinned a Mortitia Addams turn as the wicked Dionyza (who jealously attempts to kill Pericles’ daughter Marina) with a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson-like centered soul as the wise healer Cerimon (whose art cures the Tyrian prince’s thought-to be-drowned wife Thaisa). But all deserve mention—Ron Menzel in the lead, Teria Birlón, Leah Curney, Steve Lewis, Randy Reyes and Lee Mark Nelson (who also works in New York).

In contrast to some of New York’s Shakespearean ventures, where actors seem encouraged to adapt their own approach to speaking verse no matter what that might be, this multi-ethnic cast of differing generations and professional experience all managed to sound as though they were in the same play; kudos to the speech coach, Lucinda Holshue. Greg Brosofske’s evocative world music was also admirable.

There’s a lot of other appealing theater and music in the area, including the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Twin Cities offer beautiful lakes and extensive parklands along the Mississippi, a surprising range of fine ethnic restaurants—large Somali and Hmong communities being the latest influxes of immigrants—and no shortage of gay venues, as well a sense of an out presence everywhere. My two favorite discoveries were Jetset, an urbanely hip but comfortable and smoke-free bar, and the Wilde Roast, a wonderful wireless access café with a community bookstore attached. A train ride costing just over a dollar to and from the airport speeds the journey.

I know I’ll be back.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News and Opera.

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