Portland music: one hit and one miss

The opera whiffs on a Handel production, while the symphony struts its stuff in a John Adams' piece. The pair of performances raises an interesting question of how "regional" factors come into play.
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The Oregon Symphony at work. (Oregon Symphony)

The opera whiffs on a Handel production, while the symphony struts its stuff in a John Adams' piece. The pair of performances raises an interesting question of how "regional" factors come into play.

What makes a regional opera company or symphony "regional?" I found myself wondering this after two jarringly disparate performances by flagship Portland musical organizations over two weekends: a knockout performance of interesting music from the Oregon Symphony, and a shockingly dull and underpowered production of Handel's Rodelinda at Portland Opera.

So - let's start with the regional contexts. Portland Opera performs in the cavernous Keller Auditorium in Portland; the Oregon Symphony makes their home at the much-maligned Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Both organizations perform September through May seasons for Portland metro audiences.

The musicians of the Oregon Symphony and those who make up the pit orchestra for the opera - they're two distinct groups of orchestral musicians in Portland, as opposed to Seattle's symphony members, who also make up the pit for Seattle Opera productions - are Portland metro residents, sure. Several of them teach at area colleges and community music schools. Often they perform in chamber music concerts or with some of Portland's pop or crossover bands.

But how distinctively regional is what those organizations actually put onstage? Much of the Oregon Symphony's season is comprised of well-trod classical repertoire that most other major-league American orchestras could tackle in an equally respectable way. And Portland Opera has in recent years defined itself at least in part by being simply another stopover city for productions originating elsewhere.

What sort of uniquely "Portland" experience are audiences even getting? And is that important?

I bring this up because of Portland Opera's huge misfire with their current trucked-in production, George Frederic Handel's mid-career masterwork, Rodelinda. The production is on loan from Dallas Opera, which premiered the new John Copley (direction), John Conklin (scenery), Peter Hall (costumes) production in 2006 with a heady cast including Polish contralto sensation Ewa Podles (Bertarido) and Ruth Ann Swenson (the title role). The physical production itself is innocuous enough: gold tinted frames-within-frames and a blood-red floor with incidental period-ish furniture. Hall has designed handsome costumes for the company, and one gets hints of intriguing stage business or suggestions of character that, under Copley's original directorial hand, likely blossomed into rich and full characterizations. Helena Binder, Portland Opera's stand-in stage director, rarely generates much more than posturing or broad emotions from her cast, and too often leaves them standing - blank-faced and stock-still.

But the real problem was with the level of singing and playing, which rarely achieved a standard acceptable for a company of this size (and for single ticket prices which have now broken the $200 mark - in Portland!). Yes, producing a relatively little-known Baroque opera by a relatively well-known Baroque composer is ostensibly a big gamble for the company, but they've not done themselves any favors with the cast assembled.

As bad-boy duke Grimoaldo, Robert Breault's patchwork tenor adopts the Cecilia Bartoli school of expressive singing - full-gale coloratura followed by breathy expressivity - but to lesser effect; he also stumbles around in his great vengeance aria ("Tu drudo e mio rivale!") like a Stark Street drunk. Most of the rest of the cast fails to persuade with either voice or character; countertenor Gerald Thompson who sings with a sexy and exciting voice, and acts with conviction, is the major exception.

Conductor George Manahan, on loan from New York City Opera, works like a dog in the pit, playing continuo keyboard for the recitatives and whipping up the orchestra in the arias and small ensembles. The modern-instrument pit band, augmented by theorbo, baroque guitar, harpsichord and cello, started off with real bite, but energy (not to mention tuning) started to sag by the second act (of three).

There was one other voice of note: soprano Sharin Apostolou, a young (she's not quite 30 years old) member of the newish Portland Opera "studio artists" program. Stepping in on 48 hours notice for an indisposed Jennifer Aylmer, Apostolou took on an impossibly daunting role with fearless flair, unraveling a sweet lyric coloratura voice of real promise. This is the second time this season that a "young artist" has saved the company's bacon (Hannah Penn stepped in for, and showed up, the originally cast Jossie Perez in the company's Carmen last fall.)

You have to wonder what Portland Opera general director Christopher Mattaliano was thinking when bringing this production together. One also wonders what his own creative instincts might be like - what if, instead of importing nearly all of their productions, the company began to make a mark with its own new ones?

Of the company's four mainstage productions this season, only one was an original, and it was a dud: Jules Massenet's Cinderella, with Portland native mezzo Angela Niederloh shining in the title role in spite of the desolate and dim new production surrounding her. In the 2008-09 season, none of their mainstage productions will be original to the company (though their "Studio Artist" production, Cavalli's La Calisto at the Newmark Theatre, will be newly constructed).

Things fared much better the weekend prior with the Oregon Symphony. In a Sunday night showing on Feb. 3, the symphony offered one of the best concerts I've heard them play, and it included a near-warhorse (Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2), a less-frequently-heard Romantic gem (Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D Minor), and a contemporary masterwork (John Adams' Chamber Symphony). Resident conductor Gregory Vajda was on the podium, and it was a hell of a night.

Beethoven's earliest piano concerto lets more light in than the later ones, and offers plenty of daunting passagework for the pianist. But for all of soloist Kirill Gerstein's dazzling technique and secure grasp of "the classical style," his performance left me cool. He began to hint at the elegant wit of the work in the concerto's fly-by-night third movement, but for an artist with early jazz training, his playing was surprisingly four-in-the-bar. Vajda led the orchestra in an assured if equally staid performance. The orchestra proved more malleable in their performance of the Schumann Symphony No. 4 in D minor, which Vajda conducted with obvious affection and emotions heart-on-sleeve. There was sumptuous playing from the lower strings (which the Schnitzer lower balcony seats seem to favor) and first-rate work from the principal winds.

The real magic came with the concert opener: John Adams' hyperkinetic Chamber Symphony, which Vajda described in his short remarks before the piece as "Arnold Schoenberg with the Road Runner," in homage to Adams' own inspiration for the work: studying Schoenberg while his son watched Saturday morning cartoons in the room next door.

The piece is at its delirious best in the break-neck third movement, which sometimes pits choppy strings against tart outbursts from the brass. Sometimes the air clears to reveal ingenious duos - a plangent violin (concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, with real singing tone) up against a stuttering tambourine (the indefatigable percussion master Niel DePonte).

The mastery of the 15 symphony principal players is hard to understate, but also included such luminaries as David Buck (flute and piccolo), Nancy Ives (cello), Jeffrey Work (trumpet), and Carol Rich on the electric keyboard. Even if the formidable sound-sucking challenges of Schnitzer Hall precluded me from hearing every utterance, the precision of ensemble was unmistakable.

That's one thing this orchestra does well, and it's partly a "regional" benefit from these players working together week after week, and playing a non-standard work that fires them up. Let's hear more of the same.


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