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Making beautiful music together: (l-r) Allen, Abeles in Bard’s The Chocolate Soldier.

Photo: Cory Weaver

Romantic Nostalgia

By B.A. Nilsson

The Chocolate Soldier

Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College, through Aug. 15

In the building’s larger theater, the final acclaimed performance of Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera The Distant Sound sent singers scurrying past, their faces grotesquely painted. But with an August too clogged to allow me to see both of this season’s operas, I succumbed to the part of me that likes froth and happy endings and sentimental tunes.

I hitherto only knew Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier as a punchline, a payoff for a gag involving forgotten musicals if The Red Mill or Naughty Marietta won’t do. And I swear to you, during the drive home I was listening to a 1966 Jean Shepherd radio show in which he described dining at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, in a room that “featured four very proper musicians . . . playing things like selections from The Chocolate Soldier.”

Bard Summerscape’s mission is to bring you the little-seen and rarely heard, and director-choreographer Will Pomerantz did another commendable job in putting this on the stage. As was the case with his production two summers ago of the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, he was working with a property that no doubt clogged the stage with chorus and dancers; this trimmed-down version made intensive use of the hard-working chorus: it’s impressive how adaptable women can be with the mere addition of a mustache or two.

The operetta is based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man, although Shaw completely dissociated from the piece and insisted on no royalty payments, a decision he must have later regretted.

Escaping Serb soldier Bumerli (baritone Andrew Wilkowske) is actually a Swiss pacifist who carries chocolates in his bullet belt. He hides in the bedroom of Nadina (soprano Lynne Abeles), whose father is a Bulgarian general and whose fiancé just won a battle against Bumerli’s Serbs—but won it only by chance, as Bumerli explains to the reluctant but very smitten young lady.

So sparks a plot of mistaken identity revealed and pomposity deflated and ill-matched lovers united with their proper mates. Songs like “My Hero” and “The Letter Song” must have sounded in the streets back when this operetta had its 1909 Broadway run; “Sympathy,” was a lovely duet for Bumerli and Nadina, whose voices shone throughout despite a fight against the unkind acoustics of the Fisher Center’s Theater Two.

The ensemble numbers, which brought in Nadina’s father, General Popoff (the very amusing bass Jeffrey Tucker) and fiancé Alexius (tenor Glenn Seven Allen), were high points of the production, nicely staged and never bogged down with operetta’s bane of unnecessary business.

High praise also for mezzo Madeleine Gray as mother Aurelia, soprano Camille Zamora as the coquettish cousin Mascha, the imposing Jason Switzer as military man Massakroff, menacing the audience as well as the cast, and Matthew Kreger in the thankless role of the servant, Stefan, hauled in to round out the frequent sextet.

James Bagwell led a small ensemble of musicians brilliantly, a one-player-per-part orchestra that sounded as fin de siècle as you probably can get.

 

Opening Night Triumph

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center was heralded with a rousing, everyone-but-the-cellists-on-their-feet performance of the national anthem, prompting an audience sing-along that wafted the attar of patriotic halitosis toward the stage. In other words, we were deep in the heart of tradition.

It’s a tradition going back 45 years, 21 of them with Charles Dutoit as the orchestra’s music director at SPAC. This is his final season in that capacity, and while deserved kudos are lavished, we’re teased with what’s to come.

But we were off to a good start in terms of attendance, with the house populated as I’ve rarely seen it filled—thanks no doubt to the guest appearance of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom SPAC executive director Marcia White unnecessarily likened to a rock star (the superstar soloist dates at least as far back as Paganini).

But let’s glory in the music. Dutoit gave a hell-bent-for-leather downbeat and the brassy start of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan burst forth. It’s the piece that put Strauss on the map, written when he was 24, and it’s no easy trick for the players.

A live performance pulses with the excitement of the musical conversations unfolding around you, with risks taken and achieved—something we take for granted with recordings. And there’s even a bit of theatricality, seeing the percussion section rise and thus knowing something’s about to break loose back there. And it’s nice to witness.

Don Juan takes hairpin turns of emotional contrast, but its cumulative effect is such that once we reach the finale’s restatement of the opening sequence, we feel we’ve accomplished a significant journey, all the more satisfying thanks to the virtuoso performance.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is Don Juan gone berserk. The score is lush, seething with unusual orchestral effects, from drum smashes to solo violin harmonics to what sounds like Klezmer clarinet. We remember the rawness and rhythmic intensity, but this performance reminded me how melodic the ballet score is at generous moments. Again, it needs an orchestra of virtuosos and a conductor to stoke that brilliance, so we were in good hands.

Speaking of virtuosos: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s musical prowess is beyond question. So is his celebrity. He packed the house with the Elgar concerto, a work he eased from posterity’s assignment to Jacqueline du Pré, and played it brilliantly and played it big. He’s a performer of grand gestures. His upbow starts considerably to the right of the cello, like a batter with a big, big swing.

As he plays, he gives a cheerful smile to the conductor, then sways the other way to give a we’re-working-the-salt-mines grimace to the concertmaster. He could not be a more engaging platform presence, and this plays to the crowd like gangbusters.

If I heard this performance as a recording only, I’d still be awed by Ma’s playing. But watching him sweat made it the more compelling. The concerto’s second movement has a zippy finish that inspired a burst of audience applause, one of those pleasant occasions when, classical snobs like me notwithstanding, the audience was right.

—B.A. Nilsson

 

Solving Beethoven

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 7

What do you program alongside Beethoven’s “ninth?” It’s a long second half for a modern concert, which means you want something kind of brief that nevertheless will stand up to its companion.

The first time I saw the Symphony No. 9 publicly performed was 40 years ago, and conductor Leopold Stokowski paired it with Ginastera’s Overture to the Creole Faust and Virgil Thomson’s Sea Piece with Birds—and repeated the Thomson. To say that Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit played it safe by choosing a Mozart piece for the first half, which was my initial thought, is to woefully underrate the effectiveness of the work he chose, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 297b.

It has a cloudy pedigree, but I’m happy to accept it at least as extremely Mozartean if it isn’t in fact the goods. What made it work in this context was its construction: a concerto putting a wind quartet up against a string-heavy orchestra.

I think the winds are the secret stars of Beethoven’s ninth, especially in the third movement, the backbone of the piece. So there’s a resonant scene-setting putting the Mozart first. There’s also the pleasure of witnessing the fantastic musical evolution that took place during the 46 years separating the works—especially once Beethoven hit his stride. And there’s much merit in featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal players. Peter Smith (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), and Jennifer Montone (French horn) flanked Dutoit as he took them into what started out as a stiff-sounding journey to Mozart land. I look for a sense of ease with this orchestra, and wonder if the piece simply was under-rehearsed.

By the first movement’s cadenza, it felt more relaxed, and the slow movement was gorgeous. The piece finishes with a light-hearted theme and variations that gave us all manner of wind combinations, nicely done.

It’s amazing that so many forces assemble for the Beethoven symphony to do so little. Bass-baritone Nathan Berg gets the most face time, exhorting us to sing the praises of universal brotherhood, but the soloists (who also included soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips and tenor Philippe Castagner) don’t even sing the big finish of the work.

But we had the massive Men delssohn Club of Philadelphia to drive it all home, and it was a firebrand of a performance. More stately than some, never over-interpreted or lugubrious, Dutoit’s pacing made the most of the musical detail, the agonized swells of the first movement pulsing from section to section, the second movement’s whimsy at the fore (including the composer’s recycling of his false-ending scherzo joke from the Symphony No. 7), and, of course, the passion of the third. And the unalloyed joy of the finale made me understand why this work—the fee for its soloists and chorus notwithstanding—is programmed so often: It needs to be enjoyed in person. With the right piece to open the show.

—B.A. Nilsson

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