A highlight of last year’s theater season was Theatre Nova’s critically lauded production of the Off Broadway smash comedy Buyer and Cellar, featuring a delightful Wilde-award nominated performance by Sebastian Gerstner. Local audiences will be excited to hear that Gerstner and the Buyer and Cellar creative team return to the Yellow Barn to kick off the 2016 season with a production of Lee Blessing’s political comedy Chesapeake.
Directed by Daniel C. Walker, this Michigan premiere showcases Sebastian Gerstner’s comedic skills in another hilarious one man show, this time as a performance artist so outraged by a conservative Republican senator and his anti-arts campaign that the he plots to kidnap the senator’s beloved Labrador Retriever. The caper does not unfold as planned, however, to amusingly disastrous results.
The play is inspired by a true event: the 1989 challenge by Jesse Helms over First Amendments rights and the National Endowment for the Arts. The play premiered in New York in 1999 and has since been performed throughout the U.S. The Chicago Sun-Times highly recommended Chesapeake, calling the play “hilarious, provocative, and blisteringly smart,” while the Baltimore Sun praised it as an “enriching play that entertains audiences and…redefines what a complete theater experience can become.”
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances of Chesapeake begin Friday, February 5, and will run throughout the month, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. For information, visit www.theatrenova.org or call 734-635-8450. All Theatre Nova shows are pay-what-you can, with a suggested donation of $20. Theatre Nova is located at The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron in Ann Arbor.
The new Kickshaw Theatre is kicking off with a bold promise that it will be presenting theater with a bite by staging Stefanie Zadravec's The Electric Baby as its first production.
The Electric Baby is a play with drama, humor and a social conscience. But it is also burdened by its shifting styles, its dips into magic realism and its central symbolic image, a baby that "glows like the moon."
In choosing to take on this particular play, director Lynn Lammers dares to challenge her audience to give in to the playwright's excesses to mine for the moments of gold. She has the benefit of directing an outstanding and dedicated cast that shares her sensitivity and seriousness to material that often seems too fragile.
An immigrant mother in a rundown apartment is our guide. The Romanian immigrant, Natalia, talks directly to the audience, suggesting helpful folk remedies or telling fanciful folk tales, all while rocking her baby. The baby is hope in an unusual form.
The action begins with a middle-aged couple engaged in a fierce argument while waiting for a valet to bring their car after visiting the husband of their deceased daughter. The woman becomes enraged and hurries into the night.
Nearby, an immigrant African cabdriver picks up a young man and woman who have just dramatically stormed out of their low-paying restaurant jobs but become embroiled in their own argument about the woman's side job as an "escort."
The taxi and the running woman collide, setting off a series of encounters. In the process Zadravec explores a myriad of social issues from the impact of loss on a longstanding marriage, the problems of aging in an economic downturn, the problems of the young forced into dead-end jobs, the problems of immigrants trying to make it in a less than friendly America. To do this, she moves back and forth from realism to folk tale and mysticism. But the Kickshaw cast makes it work.
Vanessa Sawson's Natalia is earthy, confiding, at times romantic. The accent sounds very credible. She is especially effective at drawing the audience in as she cajoles them with her old country remedies. She is also good at portraying the bitter struggle in her once hopeful life in America.
William Bryson as the cabdriver, Ambimbola, also has a credible accent that booms with authority. He also has a sardonic chuckle and a face that animates a hundred different emotions. This character is a beacon of hope that depends on Bryson's charm to work.
The married couple groping to repair a badly damaged marriage are played sharply by Julie Glander and Peter Carey. Glander at first is a bundled of nerves as Helen, grieving and blaming for too long. Gradually she learns how to channel her grief and Glander handles the transition beautifully. Carey's Reed is a difficult character hiding a secret and holding down his own grief until it boils over. Carey's rich voice gives special weight to Reed's attempts to evade and then accept his responsibilities.
Mary Dilworth plays the foul mouthed young prostitute, Rozie, with a perfect combination of childlike vulnerability and defiant brass. Dilworth snaps off a torrent of vulgarity while retaining that hint of the young girl she once was.
Michael Lopetrone rounds out the cast as Dan, Don and David. He makes each a little different. His stuttering Dan is never played for laughs or sympathy.
This is a strong beginning for a new company that might have played it safe the first time out. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Electric Baby continues through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.
Oscar and Felix are back.
The most famous stage bromance, The Odd Couple, is as hilarious as ever at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre, where the jokes just keep coming but the play's underlying humanity rises to the top.
Neil Simon had a long, prolific and successful career, but The Odd Couple is probably his most enduring and most produced work. Following its box office success on Broadway and as a hit movie, it is produced regularly across the country and has even inspired a female version.
The Purple Rose makes their production special with an excellent cast in top form, hitting each zinger with perfect timing, while finding the play's heartfelt take on what it's like to be lonely in a big city.
The neat-freak, fuss budget Felix Ungar has been given the boot by his wife and his poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, an uber masculine slob, reluctantly offers him temporary residence in his Manhattan apartment. The apartment has been too big and too empty since Oscar's divorce.
At the heart of this story are two men of opposite personalities who find a way to complement each other. Guy Sanville is the gruff, slovenly Oscar but with a look in his eyes that suggests a sensitivity befitting one of New York's top sports writers. He's funny in a sly, deadpan way. David Montee is a sweet-natured Felix, the slightly prissy man who enjoys cooking and can't stand a mess. Montee doesn't overdo the effeminate qualities as some actors would and instead emphasizes Felix's gentleness along with his irritating, but funny, perfectionism.
Lauren Mounsey makes her professional directing debut and does a fine job of keeping the mood droll and funny but also low key. The jokes are there and the audience laughs but they come out of real conversations. All of her actors are in sync which keeps things moving along hilariously.
The poker gang played by David Bendena, Jim Porterfield, Chris Lutkin and Tom Whalen kibbutz and razz each other with easy rapport. Porterfield is especially funny as the excitable cop Murray, whose agitation rises to a boil of nervous energy.
Oscar and Felix, of course, find female companionship in the form of the ever lovable Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Michelle Mountain) and Cecily (Rhiannon Ragland). They twitter and fidget about as their surname suggests and all in sparklingly twitty English accents. Their scene with Felix is both funny and endearing.
The intimate Purple Rose setting is perfect for The Odd Couple, drawing the audience into Oscar's Manhattan apartment. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer does a good job of presenting a well-appointed apartment that has somewhat gone to seed under Oscar's disregard.
These are characters we all know so well from stage, movie and a hit TV series, but the Purple Rose gives them bright new life.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Odd Couple continues through March 26 at the theater, 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Tickets range in price from $19 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors and groups. For more information or to make reservations, call the theater box office at (734) 433-7673 or go online to http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.
Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.
War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.
There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.
The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.
While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.
On a frigid, January night in Ann Arbor, Kaki King warmed up The Ark with her unique brand of guitar theater. She currently tours with a projection guitar—images from a screen behind her mesh and mingle with similar moving images on her axe. Here is an artist who has embraced the visual age and incorporated our insatiable fixation with ocular stimulation into her performance.
Kaki King’s guitar work is singular. While stylistically divergent and favoring an acoustic, she is a virtuoso in the vein of Pat Metheny or perhaps Jaco Pastorius (who worked a bass, but you get the point). She finger-picks her instrument with artistry and technical precision—if she misses a note, it sounds intentional. Her textures range from experimental jazz to avant-garde folk to hip-hop. Dave Grohl has sung her praises.
King opened with some somber noise numbers—an inquisitive start to her performance-art narrative—then gradually intertwined musical sleight-of-hand with carefully selected moving pictures. She followed with some incredible noodling skills (almost unfair to use jam-band terminology, but words fail) with just a touch of funk and percussion. The performance crescendoed with a visual, captioned story about her ivory-colored guitar over a mellow hip-hop beat. The vignette also served as personal backstory for a musician who has clearly fought to assert her eclectic nature.
Her latest album, The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, released in 2015 on the Short Stuff label, is her eighth full-length album, and showcases an artist who is ever-evolving and ever-evading the status quo. Her earlier work was a bit more straight-ahead; she has preferred more uncharted corners of the musical universe since her first two albums (Everybody Loves You, Velour, 2003 and Legs To Make Us Longer, Red Ink, 2004).
While originally from Atlanta, King espouses a New Yorker’s sensibility. She has a song entitled “Carmine Street” (off her debut album) and the accompanying visuals for one song on the night were clearly of NYC mise en scene (including a sign for Carmine Street, which lies just north of Houston in Greenwich Village).
Her insistence on free-flowing jazz and artistic reverie can be infuriating, even inaccessible, but her mastery of her craft must be appreciated. The house was certainly entranced and intrigued and stuck around for her annotations afterwards. King rarely features vocals (when included, they are often from guest artists), so it almost seemed like breaking the fourth wall when she spoke to the audience after her set. Kaki King offered an unpredictable art installation alongside her music—her work and live performance are equally compelling.
M.F. DiBella contributes to Current Magazine and Found Magazine, and blogs at 1lessblog.com
Kickshaw means “rare delight.” The term now also refers to Kickshaw Theatre, Ann Arbor’s newest professional theater company, whose first full production, The Electric Baby, by Stefanie Zadravec, opens on Thursday, January 28.
In alignment with their core values, Kickshaw Theatre has partnered with local organizations, including the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild, and the Lamaze Family Center, to bring this magical drama to the Ann Arbor audiences.
The dark comedy The Electric Baby received its World Premiere in 2012 and, in addition to other awards, received the American Theatre Critics Association’s Francesca Primus Prize for an Emerging Female Playwright. Talkin’ Broadway raved that the play was “richly entertaining;” and The New York Times praised The Electric Baby as “gently touching” with a “mix of expressionism and magical realism.”
The plot revolves around six characters (Will Bryson, Peter Carey, Mary Dilworth, Julia Glander, Michael Lopetrone, and Vanessa Sawson) whose lives collide after a tragic car accident, forcing each to confront the secrets, hopes and fears that consume them, and helping them to find love, strength and forgiveness through a mysterious baby that glows like the moon. Kickshaw’s premiere production is directed by the Theatre’s artistic director and founder Lynn Lammers.
Take a chance to view this magically delightful new play with Ann Arbor’s brand new professional company!
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances of The Electric Baby will run from Thursday, January 28 through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. There are also several special performances featuring post- performance conversations with special guest organizations. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.
My guess is Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s unnerving, primal singing style isn’t exactly what filmmaker Robert Flaherty had in mind to accompany his silent masterpiece, Nanook of the North (1922). But when she was commissioned in 2012 to provide a soundscape to Flaherty’s legendary cinematic landscape, Tagaq, an outspoken advocate of aboriginal rights, was put off by the film’s racial stereotypes and so conceived a soundtrack meant to reclaim the film with a 21st-century filter.
Flaherty’s documentary methods, including some staged sequences, have come under criticism over the decades. But the landmark film, still stunning nearly 100 years on, has an authenticity that overrides these complaints. (And to be fair, there was no documentary or ethnographic film-making to speak of before Flaherty; he can arguably be said to have invented the genres. And as such, there was certainly nothing remotely resembling later-day Cinéma vérité.)
Above all, the miracle of Flaherty's achievement in Nanook of the North - aside from the fact that he pulled it off with one camera and no lights in the freezing cold - is in documenting a remote way of life never seen before during a decade of the 20th century noted for ratcheting up nationalistic fervor and suspicion of outsiders across the globe. In her upcoming performance, Tanya Tagaq’s evocative style, full of throaty breathing and influenced by electronica, industrial, and metal, should lend as much to the stunning beauty of Nanook’s arctic landscape as it does in calling out the film’s racially charged clichés.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North" takes place on February 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University, Ann Arbor.
Working at the intersection of art and technology, Petoskey-based artist Robert deJonge crafts digitally-manipulated photography designed to sharpen his viewer’s view of the world around us. The understated embellishment isn’t so much modified landscape photography as it is an attempt to create a sort of restrained hyperrealism.
A particularly nuanced miniaturist, deJonge’s keenly realized photographs make us see the world as we would like to see it. And as such, his exhibit for the University of Michigan Health System’s Gifts of Art, A Walk Along the Shore, is a technological homage to such photographic landscape greats as Ansel Adams and Michigan’s own master landscape photographer, Howard Bond.
Yet unlike Adams or Bond—both of whom grapple with nature as it presents itself through their photographic technology—deJonge goes the additional step of attenuating our perception of the external world through digital means. So while Adams and Bond found ways of sharpening our perception of the natural world from within their photographic frame, deJonge chooses instead to selectively modify his landscapes with minute attention that heightens the appearance of his world.
In an earlier era, these modifications would have been color-tinted by hand. And this touch-up, so to speak, created drama through the selective addition of pigments, thereby adding one layer of articulation upon the initial photographic base. But by utilizing digital modification, deJonge instead imperceptibly shifts the emotional tension of his composition from outside to inside the frame. The manipulation of the materials therefore differs from one sort of art to another, even if the intent itself remains roughly the same.
In his Gift of Art gallery statement, deJonge explains this in more detail:
Art is worship. Using a camera and computer, I try to build images that express a spirit of wonder and playfulness.
I also enjoy drawing from the deep well of art history. I’m inspired by the magical world of Paul Klee; the lyrical world of (Marc) Chagall; and the natural connections of the (Canadian) Group of Seven (also known as the 1920s Algonquin School).
As an artist, I embrace the entire gamut of possibilities within the digital imaging world. When I capture images with my camera, I create a mental list of what the images can become through the manipulation of computer processing.
Capturing images is like collecting found objects to create an assemblage. Individual frames in the camera will most likely be combined with other frames to ‘build’ a new image. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it’s fun to have a digital palette to work with.
Fun is certainly the word. His signature photograph, amongst the dozen pieces that make up A Walk Along the Shore, is a memorable artwork entitled “Lights and Love.” This oversized horizontal masterpiece is ostensibly a visage of a north-looking Michigan aurora borealis. Yet where these broad bands of light that have a magnetic and electrical source are intrinsically dramatic, deJonge uses them as a mere platform for his art.
The photo features two broad strips of yellow light straddling a distant inlet at night with bookend stripes of attenuated pink bands. But while these lights alone would dominate the composition, deJonge paints mitigated shafts of green grass whose vertical placement creates an internal tension in the photograph—essentially a curvilinear belt of primary pigments braced by a horizontal secondary plume.
What’s left is a neutral-enough shoreline and darkened sky. And this shift of emphasis in turn creates a new dimension in art that doesn’t rely on the modernist objective mingling of artforms. Rather, deJonge’s union of photographic composition to the digital domain creates an expanded palette whose modification is quite nearly infinite.
The wonder of “Lights and Love” is not that the photograph has been digitally enhanced—after all, this is effectively true of virtually every professional image we now see in print or online. Rather, deJonge’s restricted discipline in creating his digitally enhanced art creates modifications that will only be noticed with the closest inspection. And, for most of us, that’s enough to satisfy both the eye and the mind.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
“A Walk Along the Shore: Digital Imaging” will run through March 13 at the University of Michigan Health System (Main Corridor, Floor 2, Gifts of Art Gallery - 1500 E. Medical Center Dr). Gallery hours are 8 am to 8 pm, daily. For information, call 734-936-ARTS.
Matt Jones wears a lot of hats—songwriter and bandleader for Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, drummer for Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful as well as Loose Teeth, Civil War expert/aspiring Gettysburg National Park Ranger, and EMU Historical Preservation student. Yet his newest hat is the most ambitious. He’s becoming the Alan Lomax of Michigan with his new project The River Street Anthology.
Lomax made extensive field recordings of American Folk Music from the 40’s through the 60’s. He covered a vast range of musical idioms with his recordings. They are not only a major historic document, but an endless font of musical inspiration for generations. From Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the list of music inspired by these recordings is staggering. Jones aims to do something similar—just a little closer to home—by capturing a multitude of musicians across genres throughout the entire state of Michigan.
The River Street Anthology had humble beginnings in spite of its now ambitious scope. Matt explains:
It started out as a way to get my musician friends together. There aren’t a whole lot of venues in Ypsi. I felt more often than not, I saw my musician friends just sitting around on bar stools—myself included—not playing on stage, and I just wanted something to do. The idea had been there for years—ever since Fred Thomas put his Ypsilanti Folk Singers compilation together back in 2006/¬07. That project was so fun, that I wanted to do the same, and I even asked him if he minded me using the same title (he was happy to let me use it—a sort of Volume II). It started off as a little 10 or 15 person compilation from Ypsi. Within an hour (of posting it to Facebook on February 6, 2015) it turned into 60 people.
It’s turned into my dream job that I don’t get paid for. I want this to be a legitimate historical document. It’s always been my goal to get something into The Library of Congress. I’ve been trying to weasel my way into history for years. This is even better because I can take everybody with me. It’s a way to get everybody on the books.
In the process the project birthed in the basement of his River Street home in Ypsilanti has changed him.
I lost my edge. I think that I had developed a sort of reputation around here for being a little dark, sarcastic, and quick to judge. Quick to plunge the knife in. I don't think that is necessarily ever who I really was, but we settle into playing out roles. Sometimes doing what is expected is easier than showing your real hand—vulnerability and all that. I learned real quick that there was no room for that edge in this project. I realized that to make the RSA, I would have to have support basically growing out of my armpits, up to my eyeballs and I found that I liked it. Then I found that everyone deserves it and that people thrive with it. I sit here, a foot away from people and watch/listen to them do what they love doing most. They are excited about taking part in this project and they play their hearts out. If you can seriously sit there, that close to someone pouring it out, and not love it too, I'd say you just might be a sociopath.
The beauty of Jones’ recordings is his stripped down approach. He uses one inexpensive microphone, a preamp for the mic, and a digital recorder. That’s it. And he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He tells artists it’s one take—even though it’s not always so. The end result is a great—and quick—spontaneous take that leaves him time to record a lot of other artists in a session.
At first, I wanted it to be one mic, one song, one take—I think just because it had a real nice, punk rock ring to it. I still have just the one mic, and I still only want one song... and it would be reeeeallly nice if people could pull it off in one take. But truth be told, I only tell people "one take" anymore so they rehearse before they get to my house. Usually people get in and out in under a half hour, BECAUSE THEY PRACTICED BEFOREHAND. Thing is—I have never really truly enjoyed the recording studio because it's one of those places where I can't have total control all the time. I don't pretend to be a recording engineer—I want to be a historian, not an engineer. I don't want to sit there while you work your parts out, and decide which lyrics to sing, and have second thoughts about that ending or that intro. We aren't making your next record—we are making a historical document of What You Sound Like Today. So hopefully, when I tell people “one take,” it scares ‘em enough to rehearse prior, in order to get that one take, and get themselves down on tape, and hopefully, into history the fastest way possible. History doesn't wait—you either get in it or you don't.
All of which brings us to last Saturday. Matt had his second River Street Anthology Listening Party down the street from his house at Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse on River Street in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. Alternately insightful and funny, Matt gave the backstory on his project and shared 10 audio recordings as well as several videos done by Charlie Steen and Mostly Midwest from his project so far. To date Matt has recorded over 200 artists in 7-plus towns in both peninsulas of Michigan.
The evening wound up as Matt added another recording to the anthology—live in front of the hushed audience, Jones recorded Erin Zindle of The Ragbirds (along with percussionist Randall Moore) in one beautiful take.
He took about a minute to position the microphone and get the levels right and hit record. The rest is history.
Doug Coombe is an Ann Arbor and Detroit based music and editorial photographer. He's been a photographer for the Detroit's Metro Times, Concentrate Media, and Urban Innovation Exchange Detroit.
This Sunday Jones continues the project, recording 20 musicians in Kalamazoo.
Last Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated Mozart’s birthday in style, with a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Michigan Theater. Opera is all about spectacle—elaborate sets, a cast of thousands—but the A2SO made a deliberate decision to highlight Mozart’s excellent music, which underpins the story. The A2SO brought in incredibly talented lead vocalists to round out the presentation of the opera, but decided to present a semi-staged version of the piece. The overall effect was that this was a performance for music lovers, with an emphasis on the songs within the opera, rather than the drama of the story.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It tells the story of a pair of lovers, Belmonte and Constanze, and their servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen. The opera opens after Constanze and Blondchen have been kidnapped and taken to the titular seraglio (which turns out to be a harem) of Pasha Selim, Sultan of Turkey. The Pasha has fallen in love with Constanze, who resists his advances and remains true to Belmonte. Blondchen, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Osmin, who guards the seraglio. The opera centers on the trials of the lovers as they try to find a way to escape the seraglio. There is a lot of singing about the pain of being separated from a lover and how painful love can be. Our heroes are ultimately released by a suddenly benevolent Pasha, who is moved by the strength of the love between Constanze and Belmonte.
A narrator verbally bridged the action between each song, providing background information and a quick summary of the plot. It was a clever device that allowed the focus to remain on the music of the opera, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an entry point for opera newbies. Those not previously familiar with The Abduction from the Seraglio might have had a difficult time following the action and emotion through lines of the opera, particularly since it was performed in German. Between the narrator and the lyrics projected on a small screen above the orchestra, there was no need to have memorized the entirety of the opera beforehand.
The real standout stars of the opera, among the vocalists, were the female performers Jeanette Vecchione and Suzanne Rigden. Vecchione played the part of Constanze with a wonderful gravity. Vecchione was also remarkable in her ability to keep pace with the full orchestra immediately behind her. There were moments, particularly in fire and brimstone songs, where the vocalists could get a little drowned out by the full orchestra directly behind them. This was not so with Vecchione, a testament to her skill as a vocalist. Rigden brought a wonderful lightness and humor to the stage, and was a real joy to watch. All of the vocalists deserve mention for excellent performances.
I haven’t said much about the orchestra itself, and that’s because the performance was essentially flawless. The orchestra blended into the background, supporting the vocalists’ performances, which is what you want in this sort of setting. It was interesting to get a sense of the music through the movement of the bows on the stringed instruments, however it was impossible to resist the action of the story communicated through the vocalists on stage.
The close quarters of the semi-staging helped to underscore the natural humor written into The Abduction from the Seraglio. Pushing all of the vocalists into close quarters helped up some of the dramatic tension. The downside was that the actors didn’t always have much to do, but this performance was always focused on the music of the opera. The performance was a joy to watch, and proved to be an accessible entry point into the world of opera.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and has never seen an opera before.
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next Main Stage event will be Harp Magic on March 12 at the Michigan Theater.