MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Porgy and Bess in Seattle

An unforgiving work overload is keeping me from covering Seattle Opera’s just-opened Francesca Zambello production of Porgy and Bess, an opera I love. I did cover it the last time the company presented Gershwin’s work, in 2011, in a version directed by Chris Alexander — well before I had launched this blog, so I hope you will forgive me for posting that
piece here. Two of the singers cast in 2011 are back onstage for the current production: Mary Elizabeth Williams and Jermaine Smith):

Seattle’s version admirably digs beneath the surface of this elusive classic of American identity. It avoids sentimentalizing Porgy into a saint and brings more human focus to characters who can often become caricatures. But some pivotal moments are under-emphasized….


Filed under: George Gershwin, review, Seattle Opera

Santa Fe Opera 2018: Ariadne, L’italiana, and Butterfly



Here’s my report on the rest of the 2018 summer season at Santa Fe Opera* for Musical America. I write about Ariadne auf Naxos, L’italiana in Algeri, and Madama Butterfly. My review of the company’s new production of Doctor Atomic is here.

Santa Fe, NM—-During the long reign of founder John Crosby, Santa Fe Opera cultivated its reputation as a “Strauss house.” Yet only three of the composer’s operas had been presented under the company’s third general director, Charles MacKay, before he decided to include a brand-new production of Ariadne auf Naxos as a key attraction of his farewell season.

[PDF here: Santa Fe 2018 MA reviews]
*Apart from Candide, the one production I had to miss.

Filed under: Musical America, Puccini, review, Rossini, Santa Fe Opera, Strauss

A New Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera



Here’s my review for Musical America of the new production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, which Peter Sellars directed for Santa Fe Opera:

SANTA FE, NM—As with any classic tragedy, from the outset we already know the denouement of Doctor Atomic: The world’s first atomic bomb will be successfully detonated in the New Mexican desert at dawn on July 16, 1945—a prelude to the atrocities of its use less than a month later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Review here:
Doctor Atomic-Musical America-review

Filed under: John Adams, Musical America, Peter Sellars, review, Santa Fe Opera

A Weekend at Tippet Rise


Jeffrey Kahane playing the “Goldberg” Variations. Credit: photo is by Emily Rund, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

My report for Musical America on my recent trip to the Tippet Rise Art Center for a weekend of chamber music, sculpture, and nature has now been posted. PDF version here: Tippet Rise-pdf-07.30.18_MusicalAmerica

FISHTAIL, Montana–Lots of music festivals beckon with the prospect of a temporary retreat from the mundane. Tippet Rise Art Center takes this to a remarkable extreme, thanks to its geography. Located on a 10,260-acre working ranch in rural south-central Montana, Tippet Rise requires nothing less than a pilgrimage just to take in one of the musical weekends of this year’s summer festival season, spread over eight weeks between July and September.

Filed under: Bach, John Luther Adams, Musical America, pianists, review, travel

Götterdämmerung Caps Triumph of SFO Ring


Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde with members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Here’s the final installment of my coverage for Musical America of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary Ring cycle.

SAN FRANCISCO—If Siegfried highlights Zambello’s ability to tease out vital, three-dimensional characters from a deceptively simple surface, Götterdämmerung shows her clarifying the most complex component of the entire cycle–an installment which introduces an entire generation of characters new to the Ring–with a gripping theatrical momentum. The night/day dichotomy of the Prologue aptly summed up the diametrical viewpoints of this staging…


Ring review: Part 1

Ring review: Part 2

Ring review: Part 3

Filed under: directors, Musical America, review, Ring cycle, Runnicles, Wagner

SFO’s Newly Forged Ring: Siegfried as More Than a Prequel


Daniel Brenna as Siegfried and David Cangelosi as Mime in Wagner’s “Siegfried.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Continuation of my coverage of San Francisco Opera’s Ring for Musical America:

SAN FRANCISCO—From an emotional force akin to Greek tragedy to the straightforward exploits of a superhero: for a director, one of the main challenges posed by the Ring’s third evening is how to bridge that gulf, all the while clarifying the stakes in Siegfried so that the audience will buy into the return to full-on tragic mode in the cycle’s mammoth finale….

continue [behind Musical America‘s paywall — but will be open access Friday afternoon]
Part 1 here

Filed under: Musical America, review, Ring cycle, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

San Francisco Opera Reforges Its Ring


Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Greer Grimsley as Wotan in Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Here’s Part 1 of my review for Musical America of San Francisco Opera’s Ring, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Donald Runnicles:

SAN FRANCISCO—One sure gauge of a successful Ring production is when it consistently leads you to a liminal state: to a kind of hovering between rapt focus on the moment and deliberation about what it all implies. Over the course of San Francisco Opera’s Ring, I found myself taking that threshold for granted, encouraged to ponder the connections, musical and dramatic, that are essential for Wagner’s project to make its desired impact.

continue [behind MA’s paywall]

Filed under: directors, Musical America, review, Ring cycle, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

Dausgaard and Seattle Symphony Take on an Early Sibelius Epic


photo: Brandon Patoc

My review for Bachtrack of Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony in Sibelius’s Kullervo:
On 28 April 1892, when he was only 26, Jean Sibelius unveiled Kullervo to the public. Its triumph established both his career as a composer and his reputation as Finland’s musical bard…

continue reading

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Thomas Dausgaard

A Very Palpable Hamlet from The Horse in Motion


Kevin Lin as Hamlet; photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Hamlet is usually encountered as an object of reverent study or, in performance, a vessel of virtuosity. But in its recent staging at an old Seattle mansion, The Horse in Motion found a way to turn the play back into a visceral theatrical experience — one full of discovery for bardolaters and newcomers alike.

In lieu of a traditional theater, the action was set in (and around) the Stimson-Green Mansion, a meticulously preserved 1901 home with an English Tudor Revival exterior and a wonderfully eccentric, all-over-the-place interior, located on Seattle’s First Hill.

But the novelty of presenting Hamlet as a site-specific event turned out to be just one facet of this adventurous company’s innovative take.  Brooklyn-based director Julia Sears double cast Hamlet‘s major roles among a team of eleven actors, thus creating two simultaneous productions that unfolded in different rooms of the mansion.

The audience — limited to about 40 people for each performance — was correspondingly split in two and given a cast list designed as an invitation either to the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude or to the funeral of Hamlet Senior. In various key scenes, the two casts converged in the same space, so that, for example, we saw twin Hamlets confronting the same situation — as if these parallel universes had suddenly intersected.

At these face-offs, the double Hamlets and colleagues divvied up their lines or enacted them simultaneously. Sometimes the actors from the other cast were close enough to be audible, the slightly unsynchronized delivery intensifying a sense of  patterns being eerily repeated — like a familiar ghost story retold, with just enough of a sick twist to add a new frisson.


Mario Orallo-Molinaro, Katherine Bicknell, and Kevin Lin; photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Virtuosity there was indeed, but a kind of virtuosity even more demanding than usual. For instance, Kevin Lin played Hamlet for the group to which I was assigned (the wedding party) during the second-to-last performance (28 April), homing in on the prince’s sense of desperate frustration to powerful effect. But in addition to this monumental assignment, he had to morph into Laertes for the “funeral” production and calibrate his interpretation to that of the other Hamlet, the commandingly eloquent Jocelyn Maher (who, in turn, was our Laertes).

Specific angles in the wedding cast — the intensity of the sexual bond between Claudius (Ben Phillips) and Gertrude (Tatiana Pavela) — made me curious about the parallel chemistry in the funeral cast’s scheming royal pair. Gender-blurring assignments also added a fascinating dimension to the experience. Along with the male-and-female Hamlets and Laerteses, both Hannah Ruwe and Nic Morden were double Ophelias (as well as Horatios). During the “mash-up” scenes, we saw both manifestations of Hamlet and Ophelia interacting with each other. Polonius, meanwhile, was played as a society matron by Laura Steele in both casts.

This may sound like a merely clever concept, but in performance it was riveting from start to finish, reinforcing what is at stake in Hamlet with unforgettable theatrical power. “Who’s there?” — the play’s first line, delivered urgently on a chilly, damp lawn next to the mansion — acquired fresh implications.


l to r: Jocelyn Maher (Hamlet), Mario Orallo-Molinaro (Guildenstern), Ben Phillips (Francisco), Ian Bond (Claudius), Ophelia (Nic Morden), and Hannah Ruwe (Horatio); photo (c) Kyler Martin for The Horse in Motion

Jenn Oaster’s early-20th-century smart-set costumes, enhanced by Alex Potter’s period music sound design, evoked associations from the era when the Stimson-Green Mansion was built, of ghosts from its particular past. On one level, this suggested Hamlet’s tragedy playing out in a particular context of privilege, his madness presenting as fragmentation.

But Sears’s vision probed well beyond the psychological realism that has become the default setting of too much contemporary theater. I especially relished the surreal effects of the doubling, as well as the ironic humor of defamiliarizing such iconic scenes by means of another kind of familiarity — i.e., an imagined upper class family life in this setting. (Speaking of humor. Ian Bond’s cliché-free, inventive performance as the Gravedigger in the final act was itself worth the price of admission.)

Sears and her design team made imaginative use of the variety of spaces available on the premises. Instead of a fourth wall to break, the setting itself became a protagonist, offering new elements to explore with each gently orchestrated redirection of the audience to a different room: a raging fire in the hearth, a trip up creaking stairs for the genuinely intimate bedchamber scene, a spacious ballroom where the overwrought, speedy finale of death plays out after so much anticipation. (One quibble: the amplification device for the cloaked Hamlet’s Ghost — curiously, not credited in the program listing — distorted too many words in that crucial scene.)

I asked a friend who was also part of the wedding party for his impressions of this nontraditional performance setting. He told me that the experience of  “moving along with the cast, and in such close quarters, brought us closer to the play than we ordinarily might have been.”

I’ve never actually felt nervous before during Hamlet and Laertes’ final fencing match. This time, I was viscerally aware of the nuances of the fight choreography as the rapiers clashed inches away. The only drawback was that the logistics limited the audience size, so that local theater lovers who didn’t plan ahead missed out on this remarkable experience.

As the dead bodies, doubles included, lay strewn about, not even Fortinbras (the excellent Mario Orallo-Molinaro) could set things right. Sears’s final touch removed the precious sliver of optimism the Norwegian crown prince represents, making him another victim of the sad state of this world.

–Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Horse in Motion, review, Shakespeare

Seattle Symphony Performs Stravinsky’s Perséphone


Stravinsky’s Perséphone at Seattle Symphony in Michael Curry staging; photo by Brandon Patoc

My review of a very memorable evening with Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and the visual artistry of Michael Curry:

Since its tepid première at the Paris Opera in 1934, Perséphone has remained among the most neglected of Stravinsky’s major scores, unable to find a comfortable home on the opera, ballet or concert stage.

continue reading

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

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