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Opera Saratoga's 'Ellen West' premiere superb

Opera Saratoga's 'Ellen West' premiere superb

2019 season opens with pair of weekend performances
Opera Saratoga's 'Ellen West' premiere superb
Opera Saratoga’s Production Manager Rome Brown, (right), and Assistant Production Manager Robert Klein
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Opera Saratoga gave its first offering of its season Saturday night at the Spa Little Theatre with Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera “The Daughter of the Regiment."

It was a splendid affair marked by an exceptionally high level of singing, just the right amount of fun and frolic, and a visual that was strong and appealing.

After a bit of a slow start, things got underway with strong singing from the chorus followed by bass Alex Soare, the regiment’s stalwart leader and Marie’s foster dad and then Marie herself with soprano Keely Futterer soaring effortlessly in cascades of sound over a wide range. Her agile coloratura and the sheer volume of her voice was something to hear.

Their relationship and her connections to the eight-man squad of soldiers were believable and appropriate as was her tomboyish behavior. Mezzo-soprano Whitney Robinson as her aunt reveled in comic posturing.

Marie’s equally charming love interest, Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini, stopped the show twice with two arias: the first act’s famous one with several high Cs, which he nailed with great fervor; and his plaintive and poignant appeal in the second act. He also got a standing ovation from the huge crowd at curtain call as did Futterer.

Director Lawrence Edelson choreographed the soldiers and other lineups with playful, catchy moves similar to some of Beyonce’s routines that brought chuckles. Cameron Anderson designed the colorful Alpine set (that cloud looked like a macaroon) and the drawing room with its great chandeliers. They were lit with marvelously vivid color by Josh Epstein. Andrew Bisantz conducted a strongly lyrical orchestra that was hidden away among the mountain set. Other performances are July 1 (today), 7, and 13. It is sung in French with English supertitles.

On Sunday’s matinee, another huge crowd saw the extraordinary world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Ellen West” with libretto by Frank Bidart. While the subject matter is difficult in that West suffered from gender issues and eating disorders, the music was beautifully lyrical, sometimes with dramatic flurries but only rarely with dissonance. Baritone Keith Pharses as the poet/psychiatrist and soprano Jennifer Zetlan as West were brilliant. Besides superior singing, their diction was excellent.

The almost 80-minute opera is through composed, which means dialogue in English is sung with no actual themes or melodies as in typical arias. But from the first moments, listeners were drawn in to the work’s mood and pace, all subtlely coordinated with Laura Jellinek’s spare set and Josh Epstein’s shifting lighting colors that cast shadows or silhouettes. Two orderlies, who never sang, and played by Nicholas Martorano and Penelope Kendros acted out passages or supported the action, which sometimes was a bit abstract as they themselves evinced odd movements. Emma Griffin directed.

Gordon called only for a string quartet, bass, and occasional piano with a C chime that was hit in the beginning and end to delineate mood or scene changes. The musicians, who could be seen through the window in the set, were superb; Lidiya Yankovskaya was the excellent conductor.

The cast got a standing ovation with rapturous applause. A talk was held from the stage with HPA/LiveWell after the show to talk about the issues raised.

Other performances of “Ellen West” are July 6 and 12 before it goes on the road starting in January.

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