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REVIEW: Central City turns their town into "Our Town"

By: david sckolnik Special to The Gazette
July 12, 2013 Updated: July 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Thornton Wilder said no. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright was unmoved by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein's pleading to recast his iconic portrayal of small town life as an opera. So 1938's "Our Town" remained in its primal state for 68 years.

Its author long deceased (Wilder died in 1975), the family trust did finally relent, leading to the debut of composer Ned Rorem's opera, "Our Town," in 2006. To date, the work has received a mixed response. Saturday night's regional premiere by the Central City Opera appears to have given it its best realization to date. The production runs through July 28.

Completed in collaboration with librettist J.D. McClatchy when Rorem was 82, the dramatic goal of the opera provided a huge challenge: to maintain the legendary spareness of the play while adding the sensuality and unbridled emotion that the operatic art innately brings to live performance.

The arbiter, in this case, was stage director Ken Cazan. As in the original play, there were no sets or props and only basic tables and chairs to accommodate the action. Cazan did employ an entirely modern mechanism by projecting the facts and architecture of the fictional New England hamlet of Grover's Corners on a stage wall. Lighting designer David Martin Jacques gives the production a huge assist by perfectly complementing Cazan's vision - enhancing mood and highlighting the layers of drama - through pinpoint light spotting.

Musically, Rorem's specialty is writing for the voice and he utilizes numerous vocal devices to match Wilder's expression. His unique take on recitative, for instance, effectively drives Act I's need for exposition. In Act II, the singers were given music that was more lyric and expressive, which matched the growing intensity of their character's feelings. The music also dramatically morphed to accommodate the memorable cemetery setting of Act III. Here, Rorem looked backward to the flowing madrigals of the early Baroque as a way of suggesting timelessness.

While modern in color, the harmonic language employed never called undue attention to itself. The Christopher Zemliauskas-led orchestra played its part by allowing the composer's ever-shifting textures to not distract from the drama.

Without exception, the performer's portrayals were musically and dramatically seamless. Soprano Anna Christy gave a completely affecting portrayal of Emily Webb - from teenager to her untimely death. Her vocal and dramatic expression of the character's afterlife revelations stands as one of the finest accomplishments I've ever witnessed. As her neighbor and suitor George Gibbs, tenor William Ferguson captured the essence of anxious adolescence - again vocally and theatrically.

The impressive r?um? of soprano Sally Wolf, bass Kevin Langan, baritone John Hancock and mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella were only enhanced by their performances as Emily and George's parents.

Still, there were some issues.

Many characters of the original play were left out of the opera - probably by necessity of time. There was a cost to this: Much of the folksy charm was lost and the focus on the storyline gave too much weight to the tragedy of the drama. And although the role of the Stage Manager also adds humor and wholeness to the play, as rendered by the excellent Vale Rideout, much of the intimacy with the audience is lost. Here, the vocal art fell noticeably short of what is possible in straight theater.

"Our Town"

What: The regional premiere of Ned Rorem's "Our Town"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, July 20, 26; 2:30 p.m. Friday, Sunday, July 24 and 28

Where: The Central City Opera House, 127 Eureka St., Central City

Tickets: $20-$110; 1-303-292-6700,

Something else: Also in repertory, new productions of Giacomo Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" (through July 27) and Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat" (Aug. 6-11 at the Buell Theater, Denver Performing Arts Complex)

"The barber of seville"

Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," which joins "Our Town" and "Show Boat" in Central City Opera's 2013 Festival, is considered one of the greatest comic masterpieces of the operatic stage.

The company's new production is an absolute winner. Three consummate singing actors - Daniel Belcher (Figaro), Jennifer Rivera (Rosina) and Patrick Carfizzi (Dr. Bartolo) - never fail to vocally and theatrically light up the senses. David Portillo (Count Almaviva) may not be able to match their flair, but nonetheless triumphed through his honest and glorious tenor.

Topped off by Sara Jean Tosetti's spectacular cartoonlike costumes and Arnulfo Maldonado's giant gilded cage of a set, there's hardly a moment through this three-plus-hour romp that doesn't delight.

The real hero here: stage director Mark Asatfan. I can't recall seeing an operatic production in which every moment is so thoroughly filled with such ceaseless and engaging invention.

David Sckolnik

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