The Amarillo Opera continues to surprise. Thanks to the efforts of David O’Dell and his obviously supportive Board of Directors, a fine opera company is growing up in what feels like an unlikely city in the Texas Panhandle. When opera companies in major cities are struggling to stay afloat or, worse closing, the opera in Amarillo is stepping up in respect around the country.
Amarillo is hardly a major metropolitan city; it is only 14th in size in Texas. The success of the Amarillo Opera demonstrates that opera can thrive anywhere, as long as there is a visionary director and a ready and appreciative audience to be found. The recent production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide could have easily graced the stage of the other regional opera companies.
Seen on Sunday afternoon, Candide was cleverly staged. Julia Noulin-Mèrat’s sets were minimal, just draped platforms and an occasional chandelier or shadow cut-outs to help identify the many locations of the action. Eras were a jumble, ranging from Voltaire’s own time to some futuristic nightmare.
Costumes, by Patricia McGourty, were just the opposite of Noulin-Mèrat’s improvised sets. They were over-the-top elaborate, such as the marvelous creation of fabrics, filigree and junk jewelry sported by The Old Lady. Others were plain, such as the pale and unremarkable tunic designed for Candide, the simple and credulous everyman. Others, like the serapes in the scene set in Cartagena, Colombia looked like they were right out of a local souvenir shop.
The orchestra, under the direction of a precise but uninspiring Braden Toan was consistently with the singers and balance was good. They could have used a few more strings, but that is the case almost everywhere, except for the largest houses.
Gracing this production was a first-class cast, headlined by Robert Orth, a singer with an international reputation. Orth last appeared with the Dallas Opera in the premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scherer’s Moby-Dick. His list of premieres is long and Orth has also earned a number of awards for his dedication to new music. Dallas also recently saw him in the creative production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, in conjunction with The Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre.
The multiple roles of Voltaire/Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin are a specialty of Orth’s (if a singer with such a large and varied repertoire can be said to have a specialty). He has sung the role with opera companies in Austin, Fort Worth, Portland and the Rome Festival among others. Vocally, he is a baritone who is capable of reaching easily into the tenor range. As an actor, he vanishes into his role: you had to check the program to identify him in Moby-Dick. Orth made each of his incarnations in Candide completely different, but so obviously phony that the other singers’ recognition of him was completely believable, and he brought the audience in on the joke.
As Candide, tenor Matt Morgan was good as both a romantic lead (of sorts) and a youngster, thanks to his boyishness and good looks. Vocally, this is an odd role, written in the cracks between a tenor and baritone. This is a range that the male leads in many Broadway shows also occupy. Bernstein obviously didn’t want the innocent youth to sound like a tenor in an Italian romantic opera. Thus, we don’t really get any ringing tenor high notes and there are some lower notes that Morgan was able to make sound. On the phone after the performance, Morgan commented about the role. “Candide is extremely taxing because of the range and riding a fine line between comedy and seriousness.”
Morgan did a fine job negotiating this difficult score and sounded as innocent as he looked; constantly bemused by the series of earth shaking disasters that ensue. Vocally, he is capable of a big tenor sound. His biography lists such marinara roles as Ruggero in Puccini’s La Rondine, but he moderated his voice to accommodate the role.
The role of Cunegonde is a treasure for any coloratura soprano with comic acting ability. Rose Sawvel has a thin and smallish voice with a nasal overtone, which may or may not have been part of creating the character. However, she has technique galore and her flying runs and off-the-staff high notes were perfectly sung. He was hysterical in her ditzy characterization, tossing off her era as a sexual toy with a shrug. She was an excellent foil for Morgan’s guileless Candide.
As the Old Lady, Jenni Bank took a star turn, complete with her overdone accent and blistering mezzo soprano voice. Her résumé lists Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore , a foghorn mezzo role that requires a combination of acting and vocal fireworks. She brought all that, and more, to this role in Candide. In costumer McGourty’s over-the-top dress, which looks like a drag queen’s closet exploded, she moved like the Chrysler Building in spite of her missing (and much mourned) left buttocks.
Jeni Roller was very funny as the ever-practical soubrette, Paquette, a role that barely appeared in earlier versions of the show but grew as the show was revised. She has a what-the-heck attitude towards everything, even to offering her favors to Pangloss (among others). Roller doesn’t have a national reputation as of yet, her credits are all local. A Google search only turned up a wheeled suitcase (The Jen Roller). However, she turned in an excellent performance and deserves a wider audience.
Jorell Williams was wonderful as the vain and preening Maximillian, horrified at the appearance of a pimple. His turn in drag, as a slave being auctioned off, was a highlight. Amber Dewey and Lyndi Williams were wonderful as the two pink sheep, in what looked like party store Halloween costumes (another of McGourty’s wonderful creations). Matt Oglesby demonstrated a surprisingly virile tenor voice as the Governor.
After the performance, Orth said that the secret of the success of this production was in the excellence of the secondary characters and the versatility of the chorus. In this, he was not being his usual modest self: he was absolutely correct. Candide requires a large cast with many characters. This means that actors, principles and chorus alike, have to create multiple identities. And, as Orth said, they did.
The audience loved it and gave the show a warm and sincere standing ovation.