bemf round 3: return of Penelope (and Ulisse)

Penelope and her suiters, BEMF staging ©Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

Penelope and her suiters, BEMF staging ©Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

I saw this opera only once before, in Zürich with Sara Mingardo exactly 1 year ago, and at the time completely clueless about the storyline and thinking Ulisse was a woman (mezzo). As the music was so new at the time, the only clear impression i had was how GREAT the orchestral part was, enough that I was highly motivated to come see BEMF’s staged version this time. That, and a chance to check out Mary-Ellen Nesi for the first time live. I’ll have to admit though that the Zürich’s staging completely occupied my head, so we will have some photos from that scattered here for visual comparison :-). Really, throughout the evening whenever a scene came up I immediately had flashbacks to Zürich to remember what was going on then..

Penelope and her suiters, Zürich staging; ©Monika Rittershaus

Penelope and her suiters, Zürich staging; ©Monika Rittershaus

As I allude to, first up, we will talk about the staging: As a huge fan of simple and modern sets, I must admit to originally being taken aback by the costumes in this BEMF version (first photo), especially when compared to what I saw before… But in fact after getting used to it, it is simple and carries very well the story with zero distractions. In fact the clothing does help to distinguish between the so many characters (also having English sur-title helps significantly!)

Colin Blaze as Ulisse. ©BEMF

Colin Balzer as Ulisse. ©BEMF

As already touched on, my first impression was on the great music.. So onto THE ORCHESTRA!! i got the cheapest ticket in this tiny theater, the sound was still absolutely superb but there was zero view of the instruments. And since there were some empty seats scattered around during the mid-week show, I nicely sweet-talked to a couple fellows at the front-row balcony and upgraded myself 20 rows up next to them 🙂 . They have been actively involving with BEMF since 1986! Anyhow, i think if you are lucky to have a great orchestra such as this , or La Scintilla, or Concerto Italio in the previous post, you’re in for a GREAT night musically! The BEMF ensemble is truly impressive, though surprisingly small, only 2 violins, 1 viola, 2 theorbos, 1 harp, 3 viola-da-gamba, 3 harpsichords(!!) . I’d come anytime to hear them play. In fact I was thinking they could have put the singers in the pit and orchestra on stage :-).

Next up, the singers. I was very much looking forward to hearing Mary-Ellen Nesi live. She has an exceptionally warm tone! Very pleasant for the ears. But, i’m afraid that is the end of my praises.. because the moment Penelope’s lament came on, already the first phrase, i was thinking oh no…

Mireille Asselin ©BEMF

Mireille Asselin ©BEMF

Kurt Streit as Ulisse in Zürich. ©Monika Rittershaus

Kurt Streit as Ulisse in Zürich. ©Monika Rittershaus

Ok, I was talking phrasing a couple of posts back. If there’s a single type of singing I can not handel, it’s the “pouting/over-emoting” way (e.g., “crying” to sing about sadness instead of singing about crying). At first I was hoping that’s just for the lament, but the whole evening convinced me it’s the way she sings.. I am curious how she sounded tonight, it could have been a 1-night thing?

In contrast, there are several GREAT singers, in order of my preference: Mireille Asselin as the goddess Minerva, Zachary Wilder as Penelope’s son Telemaco, Jason McStoots as Ulisse’s servant Eumete, Amanda Forsythe as Giunone (the sister of Jupiter i think). These singers really demonstrate the meaning of phrasing. And Zachary Wilder might be the only one who dared to put his lovely pianissimo to the (fully successful) test twice, great descriptive singing when he re-told Penelope what he saw while traveling. Mireille Asselin was full of authority (in her voice) when convincing Ulysses to trust her plan. In fact, every scene with her was a vocal delight!

Zachary Wilder as Penelope's son ©BEMF

Zachary Wilder as Penelope’s son ©BEMF

With Jason McStoots, I remembered him most from the last BEMF for some forced comedy.. but this time his action was all very apt along with also very impressive phrasing. And then Amanda Forsythe showed up in her puny role and progressed to make me wish BEMF would swap out a mezzo for a soprano (along with transposing the music) so we could hear her as Penelope 🙂 . Truly, after you hear the whole evening, she stormed in and demonstrated how she could take over in just 5 minutes of singing! Every time i hear her I am impressed. Colin Balzer as Ulisse is also great. His entrance with Ulisse’s lament (being dumped on an island after Neptune cooked up the storm to get him trapped there) was not really standing out but there were great moments with very descriptive singing afterward.

the party in Zürich ©Monika Rittershaus

the party in Zürich ©Monika Rittershaus

Also noticeable is Laura Pudwell as Penelope’s nurse Ericlea, I quite like her descriptive singing in her lone aria pondering if she should tell Penelope that she saw Ulisse’s tatoo 😀 (birthmark am told, when she gave him a bath, according to the sur-title!) . The countertenor singing 1 of Penelope’s suiters was also quite good.

In summary, it was a VERY impressive show, effective staging, incredible orchestra playing, wonderful singing. I wished it was a bit different with Penelope.  One a side note, by putting photos of these two stagings side-by-side, I’m glad to see huge differences which make operas so interesting.  Those suiters in Zürich clearly were having more fun partying at the expense of poor Penelope.  I can see why Ulisse was having no issues ridding them all :-).

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About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

10 Responses to bemf round 3: return of Penelope (and Ulisse)

  1. dehggial says:

    Sad to hear Mary Ellen Nesi sucked, I really loved her Polinesso but it sounds like a lot of fun otherwise (still looks like a Nativity play 😉 ). I now really want to see Forsythe live too.

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    • thả diều says:

      i really wanted to hear M-E.Nesi at least twice.. but didn’t manage. i was wondering if she might be “pushing” it, you remember the contrast between 2 nights w/ DR recital, and 2nd night was lovely once she took it just a notch lighter? was wondering if that might have been the case here.. because she’s the *star* of the show (only singer from outside, everyone else is under the BEMF umbrella) . I was really hoping as the evening progressed that she would take 1 step back and start phrasing.. but only saw a few glimpses of it and those were very lovely (because her tone is already lovely to start with).

      re. Amanda Forsythe, i’d be curious when you hear her. she’s a clear star here (by a mile) but in europe it’s star-studded.. i mean she’s within her fan-base here (sort of like VK in germany) which bounds to make her relaxed and bring out the best 🙂

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      • dehggial says:

        Sometimes you wonder what singers are thinking. Someone as well known as MEN could afford not to overdo it, so then why? Also, you’re right, different turfs, different reactions. If I see AF soon it’ll be as Amour in Orphee which is barely anything. Also I remember how tense Fagioli was at ROH when in his repertoire he’s practically royalty.

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        • thả diều says:

          singers are human, for which i’m glad 🙂 . i guess some people prefer machines.. but it does make me think twice about writing a post like this.. i really wish i had a chance to hear her twice.. may be there’s a glimpse somewhere for rehearsal we can peek..

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    • stray says:

      I would like to have read into the record my remarks from today in regard to foreshortened production development time vis a vis Nesi not sucking.

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      • thả diều says:

        I didn’t and wouldn’t use the word “sucked” to describe her performance, it’s the wrong word i’d say. Her vocal phrasing was not of my personal taste, but that’s very different than being suck.. (Stray, I think that’s what you are saying, but i can’t digest your sentence 🙂 )

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      • dehggial says:

        Sorry, I get a bit ahead of myself sometimes 😉 good to hear you thought the performance was better than my imagination led me to believe.

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      • stray says:

        Sorry, I meant to append a 🙂 to that remark 🙂

        I thought she was fine, but I can see why you didn’t like her approach. I suspect they had less time than usual to put things together, so they focused more on the big things and left the singers to look after their own vocal details.

        In other news, no word via Twitter from the afterparty, so either they are all comatose or they are all in jail.

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