Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Agrippina - what's it all about?

The first opera this season, Tosca, was written at the very end of the so-called Romantic age in 1900. Giacomo Puccini used every effect he knew of to create the most dramatic opera he could. The music especially contains a great amount of orchestral writing that plays with your emotions.

For the next opera at the Shubert, BLO has decided to stage George Frideric Handel’s second (and last) opera Agrippina, with a libretto by Vincenzo Grimani. It was premiered in Venice almost two centuries earlier then Tosca, on December 26, 1709. This period of music, the so-called Baroque period (1600--1750) is completely different as far as music goes. The orchestra is much smaller, other instruments are used (such as the harpsichord), and tonally, the music is much different. You can tell these two operas are on the polar opposites of the spectrum, and that is a good thing. Yet, they are subtly connected too, making them all the more appropriate in the same season.

Agrippina is set in Rome, and although the story is fictional, it does involve historical characters and touches on real events that happened around 50 AD.

Act 1
On hearing the news that her husband, the Emperor Claudius, has died in a storm at sea, Agrippina plots to secure the throne for Nero, her son by a previous marriage. Nero is unenthusiastic about this project, but goes along with his mother's wishes. Agrippina obtains the support of her two freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, who hail Nero as the new Emperor before the Senate.

With the Senate's blessing, Agrippina and Nero begin to ascend the throne, but the ceremony is interrupted by the entrance of Claudius's servant Lesbus. He announces that his master is alive, saved from death by Otho, the commander of the army. Otho himself confirms the story, and reveals that Claudius has promised him the throne as a mark of gratitude. Agrippina is confounded, until Otho secretly confides to her that he loves the beautiful Poppaea more than he desires the throne. Agrippina, aware that Claudius also loves Poppaea, sees a new opportunity of furthering her ambitions for Nero. She goes to Poppaea and tells her, falsely, that Otho has struck a bargain with Claudius whereby he, Otho, gains the throne but gives Poppaea to Claudius. Agrippina advises Poppaea to turn the tables on Otho by telling the Emperor that Otho has ordered her to refuse Claudius's attentions. This, Agrippina believes, will make Claudius revoke his promise to Otho of the throne.

Poppaea believes Agrippina. When Claudius arrives at Poppaea's house she reveals what she believes is Otho's treachery. Claudius departs in fury, while Agrippina cynically consoles Poppaea by declaring that their friendship will never be broken by deceit.

Act 2
Pallas and Narcissus realize that Agrippina has tricked them into supporting Nero, and decide to have no more to do with her. Otho arrives, nervous about his forthcoming coronation, followed by Agrippina, Nero and Poppaea, who have come to greet Claudius. Each in turns pays tribute to the Emperor, but Otho is coldly rebuffed as Claudius denounces him as a traitor. Otho is devastated, and he appeals to Agrippina, Poppaea, and Nero for support; they all reject him. This leaves him in bewilderment and despair.
Poppaea is, however, touched by her former beloved's grief and wonders if he might not be innocent. She devises a plan, which involves pretended sleep and, when Otho approaches her, sleep-talking what Agrippina has told her earlier. Otho, as intended, overhears her and fiercely protests his innocence. He convinces Poppaea that Agrippina has deceived her. Poppaea swears revenge, but she is distracted when Nero comes forward and declares his love for her. Meanwhile, Agrippina has lost the support of Pallas and Narcissus but manages to convince Claudius that Otho is still plotting to take the throne. She advises him that he should end Otho's ambitions once and for all by abdicating in favor of Nero. Claudius, eager to be with Poppaea again, agrees.

Act 3
Poppaea now plans some deceit of her own, in an effort to divert Claudius's wrath from Otho with whom she is now reconciled. She hides Otho in her bedroom with instructions to listen carefully. Nero arrives to press his love on her, but she tricks him into hiding as well. Claudius then enters; Poppaea tells him that he had earlier misunderstood her: it was not Otho but Nero who had ordered her to reject Claudius. To prove her point she asks Claudius to pretend to leave, then she summons Nero who, thinking Claudius has gone, resumes his passionate wooing of Poppaea. Claudius suddenly reappears, and angrily dismisses the crestfallen Nero. After Claudius departs, Poppaea brings Otho out of hiding and the two express their everlasting love in separate arias.

At the palace, Nero tells Agrippina of his troubles, and decides to renounce love for political ambition. By now, Pallas and Narcissus have revealed Agrippina's original plot to Claudius, so that when Agrippina urges the Emperor to yield the throne to Nero, he accuses her of treachery. She then claims that her efforts to secure the throne for Nero had all along been a ruse to safeguard the throne for Claudius. He believes her; nevertheless, when Poppaea, Otho, and Nero arrive, Claudius announces that Nero and Poppaea will marry, and that Otho shall have the throne. No one is satisfied with this arrangement, as their desires have all changed, so Claudius in a spirit of reconciliation reverses his judgement, giving Poppaea to Otho and the throne to Nero. He then summons the goddess Juno, who descends to pronounce a general blessing.

This is the type of opera that can be widely entertaining and have a double meaning to it as well (lying, honesty, betrayal), these are but a few things that happen in this opera. It is an opera not to be missed!

- Rob Tedesco, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Va, Tosca!

So. Tosca…

It was incredible. Hope you didn’t miss it.

I’m still star struck from the performance. Between the unearthly talent, the wonderful orchestra, and the unbelievable set design (I seriously felt like I was in Rome guys…especially in the 3rd act), I really don’t know where to begin.

So, I’ll just break it down for you:

The Plot: This whole video is funny, but to see the bit on Tosca, click here.

The Main Players:

Floria Tosca, played by the lovely Jill Gardner.  Mrs. Gardner was such a gem. She played up Tosca’s diva side so well, and added much needed moments of laughter. In a story so dark, it was nice to see some humor. The fact that she is not only a fantastic soprano, but also an amazing actress, made her performance one to remember.

Mario Cavaradossi, played by Diego Torre. Ah, romantic! Mr. Torre was so full of passion. “E lucevan le stelle” was absolutely arresting with its beauty. Rebellious, and full of love for the woman of his dreams, you cannot help but to feel for Cavaradossi as he approaches his cruel fate at the end.

Baron Scarpia, played by Bradley Garvin. Mr.Garvin: what a deliciously evil treat. When Scarpia made his first entrance in the church, it was striking (and so full of doom and gooey evil). His presence was imposing, only emphasized by his strong vocal abilities, stature, shiny boots, and all black fascist uniform. He, too, combined his vocal prowess with a natural acting ability, making the character so diabolical and lecherous that you could not wait to see him get his just desserts. I think we are going to see Mr. Garvin go places. Incredible!

The Place: Rome

A church, a fascist office (apparently they package them with torture chambers as well), and the Castel Sant’Angelo (which included an EXACT replica of the statue of Archangel Michael) were our specific locations.

Ladies, gentlemen …I’m not kidding: I felt like I was in Rome the entire time. The careful detail to every set piece was unbelievable, and how they seamlessly made transitions between acts was remarkable.

Fantastic acting? Check.

Glorious singing? Check.

Villains you love to hate? Check.

Suck-you-into-another-world set? Check.

Your tickets? You better get hope you can get some to the remainder of the season, because this stunning production of Tosca closed last night!

- Jessica Trainor, Boston College

A Fantastic Night of Festivities

Kara says:

As most of you already know, (and for those of you who don’t you missed out) Wednesday night was our night at the opera. Yes, I was there and I brought a friend, who is now an opera lover. We saw BLO’s first show of the season Tosca by my favorite composer Puccini. The opera was filled with talented singers and of course Puccini’s romantic and dramatic musical line.

After the wonderful performance the BLO Bunch headed over to Jacob Wirth for a small reception of about 50 BLO Bunch members. With delicious appetizers, good conversation and of course some drinks. This was a nice time to talk to other opera lovers about the performance and make new friends. There was a broad range of students from undergrads to grad students all together enjoying each other’s company.

I hope to see everyone again for Agrippina in the spring!

- Kara Fleishaker, Boston University

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Out and about after the opera

November 10th marked the first outing for The BLO Bunch and with over 100 students attending the evening's performance of Tosca and nearly 50 gathering after the show at Jacob Wirth! Check out the photo slideshow from the evening's festivities. Hear what the students at the reception had to say about the production:


Feel like you missed out? It's not too late to subscribe to The BLO Bunch and take in Handel's comedy Agrippina and Britten's fanciful, operatic take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Visit for details. 

Thanks for joining us!

- The BLO Bunch

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Night at the Opera

On November 10th members of The BLO Bunch gathered at Jacob Wirth following Boston Lyric Opera's performance of Tosca.

Ying says:

It was so great to meet such wonderful people at the post-performance reception! Having interesting conversations and enjoying the food; it was such a blast. Going to the opera is not just about the opera anymore, but about meeting new people and connect with other opera lovers (that are close to my age!) or in my case, other opera virgins. I look forward to the next student night.
- (not anymore) Opera Virgin

Jess says:
I was completely blown away. The talent was amazing, and the sets were stunning. I honestly felt like I was in Rome.

What did you think?

** Thanks to Ying for taking the photos in the "Night at the Opera" photo gallery! **

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

‘Tosca’ dishes up drama, classic music

Emma Bushnell of the Tufts Daily reviews Boston Lyric Opera's production of Tosca

I will admit, "Tosca" has never been one of my favorite operas. Puccini's music is lovely — and at many points in the opera even achingly beautiful — but the melodramatic, even pulpy plot, along with some questionable compositional choices, has led many critics to dismiss Tosca, as contemporary musicologist Joseph Kerman put it, as a "shabby little shocker."

The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) has presented a production of "Tosca" that is delightful to watch. The small cast is made up of exceptionally strong singers whose clear and characteristic voices not only do justice to the music, but also add layers of nuance to the plot. Soprano Jill Gardner returns to BLO as the titular diva, Floria Tosca, and her commanding and full voice fits the bill of the jealous, fiery heroine. Her second act aria "Vissi d'arte," arguably the most famous to come out of the opera, was brilliantly sung, and Gardner ably conveyed all the emotions wrapped in the aria without overstepping the bounds of believability.

As wonderful as Gardner's performance was, the standout performance of the evening was Bradley Garvin as the malicious Baron Scarpia. The opera originally took place during the Napoleonic invasion of Italy, but BLO has cleverly updated it to Mussolini's Rome. Garvin appears as a higher ranking member of Mussolini's army, and he looks truly imposing with his tall frame clothed in a dark, sleek uniform.

Garvin was handily the best actor of the bunch. While stage director David Lefkowich allowed some members of the ensemble to wander around the stage distractingly at times and the focus of the singers was often centered more on musicality than believable acting, Garvin appeared ever-comfortable as he strutted around with decisive movements and presented the audience with a complicated and eerie villain, backed with dominating and precise vocals.

Attacks on the other singers' acting may not be entirely fair, though, given that tenor Diego Torre, who normally appears as Tosca's lover, was sick and had to be replaced at the last minute by the Metropolitan Opera's Richard Crawley. Crawley was a wonderful addition to the cast — his third act aria "E lucevan le stele" was a literal showstopper — but some awkwardness must be expected to ripple through a production when an unfamiliar cast member is injected into the production in the eleventh hour.

Aesthetically, the production was a mixed bag. Gorgeous lighting design appropriately enhanced the moods of each individual scene and truly interacted with the plot and the characters on stage. The costumes were rich and also helpful in building the tone of the production — the soldiers' dark, shiny boots and Tosca's luxurious fur stole were visually stimulating and exciting.

BLO may have gotten a little too enthusiastic with their sets, though: An opulent Catholic church, an over-stocked study — with a conveniently placed bed that appeared to exist just to make the attempted rape of Tosca more comfortable for the actors but would normally serve no practical purpose in a military leader's office — and a prison roof equipped with a story-high stone angel all combine to overwhelm the audience.
Levels are always nice to have on stage, but Cavaradossi's painting platform in the church was awkwardly situated such that actors were constantly climbing up and down steps and turning toward and away from the action as they go. With so much drama playing out in the opera, a barer set would have been welcome. Instead, bombarding the performance space with so many unused elements and props made the show come off as trying too hard.

I have been ranting about the dramatic plot of Tosca, but I have to admit that drama is not always a bad thing. This opera will certainly arrest an audience's attention, even if one has seen the show before — a mad cocktail of jealousy, lust, torture, murder, suicide and betrayal, coupled with some truly wonderful music, does tend to go down well. BLO has mishandled some aspects of the play — the sets and some awkward stage direction — but ultimately it isn't the backdrop that matters as much as the sweet, ever-popular music of Puccini, and with that, the production succeeds handsomely.

- Emma Bushnell, Tufts University

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

'Tosca' proves opera is accessible for all

Sujin Shin, of the Brandeis Justice reviews Boston Lyric Opera's production of Tosca

The Shubert almost feels like home now. Some of the greatest opera in Boston is performed here and there is a reassurance that fills each gilded corner: one knows that whatever is being played that night will be exquisite. Tosca goes above and beyond. This particular opera, put on by the Boston Lyric Opera, one of the finest and most beloved operas ever written and countless productions, good and bad, have been put on. But the BLO steps up to the hype and really delivers something that left this little would-be opera connoisseur completely blown away at the end of the night.

The turbulent tale of Tosca and Cavaradossi starts with just as unstable a beginning. An escaped political dissident by the name of Angelotti, played by Anton Belov, rushes nervously through a church, which is currently wrapped in tarps and littered with art supplies as it is being refurbished. He meets the hero of the story, Mario Cavaradossi, played by Richard Crawley, who is the resident painter and an apparent old friend with rebel sympathies. Enter Floria Tosca, played by Jill Gardner, Cavaradossi’s beloved and greatest inspiration.

She is a spirited and feisty woman, truly pious but also jealous, she starts a fight with Cavaradossi the woman he is painting as the Mary Magdalene on one of his canvases. That woman is blonde and blue-eyed, and not her. But he seems rather unfazed by her remarks and jealous quips—he is secure in that Tosca is the only woman who he loves and does not take her jealousy seriously. Then, Cavaradossi exits to help Angelotti hide. The scenes at the start of the opera are lighthearted, the love between the two heroes is as sweet as that of two new paramours, and Tosca’s jealousy is endearing rather than stifling. But then all spirit is splintered with the entrance of Scarpia, the monstrous policeman on the trail of Angelotti, played by BLO debutant Bradley Garvin.

Upon first meeting the captivating and sable-eyed Tosca, Scarpia is immediately overcome. Not with love, but a predatory and lecherous hunger for her. He vows to claim two bodies by the end: Angelotti’s and Tosca’s. He tortures Cavaradossi for information as an anguished Tosca is forced to listen to his screams of pain, while withholding the information that could spare him. She finally gives in and reveals the location of Angelotti. But Scarpia still threatens to kill Cavaradossi if she doesn’t give herself to him. A monumental struggle between Tosca’s immense disgust for Scarpia and her unflappable love for Cavaradossi tears Tosca’s judgment to pieces. The ensuing phenomenon of storytelling by Puccini and his libretto is one that left audiences reeling through the ages from its first performance till the present. To reveal such details would be unfair to the exquisite expositions of the performance itself—such discoveries are best impressed in an audience’s chair, listening to the sounds of true human emotion borne on the slides of trombones and the conductor’s baton.

Though the vocalists were playing without one of their own that night (for their true Cavaradossi, played by Diego Torre, was recovering from a bronchial infection) the chemistry between the actors was still largely unfettered, though there were a few moments that occurred within the love triangle that seemed emotionally reined in where they shouldn’t have been. But each actor shined brilliantly in their respective roles.

Crawley’s robust interpretation of Cavaradossi’s steely moral fortitude as well as tender adoration of Tosca was shrewd with the knowledge of previous experience. With a voice that could pierce straight through the ceiling, his presence was unable to be ignored. Debutant Bradley Garvin’s depiction of the self-possessed and barbaric Scarpia was ruthless but tended to be slightly soft in his physical lechery toward Tosca. However, his voice suited the role of power-hungry savage quite well—his “Te Deum” is a glorious visual and aural barrage. His rich baritone and tightly wound vibrato electrified the air with menacing currents. But it was the resident Tosca that shone the brightest. An exceptional actor who could slip to and from coy to heartbroken convincingly, Jill Gardner was the one to keep an eye on that night. A heavy-hitting soprano, Gardner grabbed the role of Tosca and refused to let go; the role was right in her wheelhouse and she excelled in both her vocalizations and acting.

The sets and dress were exquisite. Not one raise of the curtain failed to produce gasps from the audience. The BLO’s production of Tosca deviated from the original setting of Rome in 1800 in which the rebels were Napoleon and his forces. Instead, they chose to set the performance in Nazi-occupied Rome, with Scarpia as the head of the fascist police. With the women clad in 40’s glamour and soldiers in Gestapo uniforms, this production of Tosca feels easier to relate to and the story of love and anguish finds a firm foothold in this interpretation. And Puccini’s music, conducted by Andrew Bisantz, was supportive without being insistent. The chemistry between the voices on the stage and in the pit was always finely balanced, one never overpowering the other.

Tosca is an experience. No other words are necessary to describe it. It is something that everyone should try to see at least once. And though some might be a bit wary of opera, thinking that it’s something too esoteric and daunting, Tosca is the show that can break the stereotype. Opera is just another medium through which a story is told. And with as captivating a story as that of Tosca’s, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

Tosca is playing at the Shubert Theater until Nov. 16th. Students can purchase a subscription to the BLO and receive highly discounted tickets with special seating.

- Sujin Shin, Brandeis University

Are you a student? Did you see Tosca? Send The BLO Bunch YOUR review!

Monday, November 8, 2010

I don't know what to wear to the opera!

Student night at Boston Lyric Opera's production of Tosca is THIS Wednesday. Are you ready? Still not sure what to wear? Here are a few tips from members of The BLO Bunch:

- The BLO Bunch

Friday, November 5, 2010


There are only 5 days remaining until The BLO Bunch takes The Shubert Theatre by storm to enjoy Boston Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Do you have your tickets?

It's not too late to subscribe and join other members of The BLO Bunch in the Twitter Lounge during intermissions and attend the post-performance party at Jacob Wirth.

Email for details.

Can't wait to see you at the opera!

- The BLO Bunch

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The BLO Bunch partners with Jacob Wirth!

After you spend an evening at the opera, 
join The BLO Bunch for
free appetizers at Jacob Wirth for a post-performance reception.

On Wednesday, November 10th all interested students are encouraged to meet up with The BLO Bunch at the Shubert Theatre for the performance of Puccini's Tosca, check out the Twitter Lounge during intermissions and join us for a post-performance reception at Jacob Wirth - it's just a stone's throw from the theatre and the appetizers are FREE, so there is no excuse not to stop by!

Email for details.

~ See you at the opera ~

- The BLO Bunch

Opera and MTV

It wouldn’t ever occur to me to put “opera” and “music video” together in a sentence, but that’s exactly what I found one day while bumming around on YouTube—a soft-focus, staged video of Angela Gheorghiu singing “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. I looked around a bit more and found several professionally produced aria music videos, mostly by Angela and Anna Netrebko—it’s an interesting example of how technology impacts opera performance. Most of Netrebko’s videos have been taken down off YouTube because of copyright issues (they’re part of a DVD she sells called “The Woman, The Voice.”) However, “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka is still up, featuring Anna in a Marilyn-style white swimsuit, floating on a pool toy. Check it out: Song to the Moon

If this left you scratching your head, you’re not alone. This video weirded me out, primarily because opera singing is so physical, but here Anna is lip-synching to a recording of herself. This is nothing new for pop music—voices are auto-tuned, filtered, and mixed beyond recognition; but in opera, the voice is not messed with or even amplified. It’s real, yo—and it’s not always pretty. In order to get the notes, singers make fairly bizarre faces (Cecilia Bartoli is a great example.) If you’ve ever taken voice lessons, you’ve probably been told to hold your nose, stick out your tongue, and bare your teeth to try and achieve good vocal positioning and tone. Once I was told to “act like a badger,” and it totally did the trick. It’s strange to see Anna on film when her voice is so clearly coming from somewhere else. Also, it’s a bit boring—gorgeous though Anna is, it’s not quite enough for me to watch her splash her hands through rippling water for extended lengths of time.

In another example, Angela Gheorghiu performs “Habanera,” from Carmen


Let’s take it frame by frame.
0:02: A giant red rose floats across the screen. The first of many.
0:07 Angela appears, silhouetted, in a sea of floating (albeit normal-sized) red roses.

0:08: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle… etc. etc. Angela, unlike Anna, at least looks like she’s really singing—she’s breathing properly and focusing energy in the front of her face. However, I still can’t quite take her seriously, and I think it’s because of all the floating flowers.
0:54 Angela’s head of shiny, shiny hair abruptly leaves the field of roses and reappears in front of bright lights.

Stop looking at me like that, Angela! I believe you, I promise. Love is exactly like a rebellious bird.

1:05 A mirror appears, and Angela soulfully inspects her reflection.
1:32: A phantom chorus begins to sing the refrain. Angela looks in the mirror some more, and then looks at me, serenely. She has nothing to do for a good twenty seconds except wait for the chorus to finish. At least they didn’t cut to the giant rose again.

2:25 - Angela begins the second verse. The camera pans out to reveal her sitting on a flight of stairs. Behind her is a painting of a bull - between that and the roses, I we've all the items that veritably scream, "Carmen!" Perhaps some castanets will appear lying on a table somewhere.
4:01 - The chorus sings the second refrain, and rose petals rain down as she triumphantly finishes the piece.

4:28 - It's baaa-aack!

As with “Song to the Moon,” this video left me wanting more from the story—most of the video is just a close-up of her face. It’s no coincidence that the two singers trying out this format are Netrebko and Gheorghiu—they’re both widely known for being hot. Angela Gheorghiu has a quote on her website from the New York Sun calling her “the world’s most glamorous opera star,” and Netrebko has been quoted as saying that her voice has gotten so big because of “the microphone between my tits.” More than ever before, sex appeal is a factor in determining which singers hit it big—it’s no accident Nathan Gunn is always called on to perform shirtless. Not that I’m complaining. Opera may not have been intended for the close-up, but Peter Gelb points out with his HD Simulcasts at the Met that it’s the way of hi-def or the way of the dodo.

Anyway, even if the operatic music video falls a bit short right now, I think Gheorghiu and Netrebko are on to something—a short-form, digital medium for opera has really cool possibilities. Granted, my stance is usually in favor of more opera in all forms, all the time.

In other news, Renee Fleming also makes music videos, for her other life as a pop star. 

- Audrey Chait, Brown Universit