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Review: A standout season for Fort Worth Opera

Posted 1:28pm on Wednesday, May. 14, 2014

This was a vintage year for the Fort Worth Opera Festival. Each of the mainstage productions was a success, and — miracle of miracles — a virtually brand new opera arguably won the gold cup, in both overall quality and audience appeal.

A large audience sat in rapt silence May 4 as the drama of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell unfolded on Bass Hall’s stage. The opera re-tells the real-life story of an unofficial Christmas Eve truce that was observed by the soldiers of both sides in the early months of World War I.

A large cast with an unusually fine-tuned dramatic sense gave the performance the power of a gripping piece of legitimate theater. Octavio Cardenas’ direction was superbly effective, and the sets and costumes of Francis O’Connor and Karin Kopischke, with lighting and sound by Marcus Dilliard, Andrezj Goulding and C. Andrew Mayer, created grim battlefield scenes.

Not least among the many assets was the music of Puts, who created many moments to remember.

Giving Silent Night a good run for its money was Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte, which debuted in Bass Hall on April 26. Witty and smart, this production featured six well-matched singer-actors who brilliantly brought off David Gately’s clever and gimmick-free staging.

The sense of success was heightened by the superb playing of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Garrett Keast’s capable leadership. Bright sets and costumes by the team of Brian Perchaluk, Bernard Uzan, Michael Baumgarten and Chad R. Jung were a bonus.

Silent Night wasn’t the festival’s only new opera. With Blood, With Ink by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask received its professional premiere April 20 in the intimate McDavid Studio.

This story of a real-life 17th-century Mexican nun who offended church authorities with her independent ways became an effective theater piece in the small space of the studio. Strong acting as well as singing was needed — and supplied — by a cast that included a young nun and her grown-up version.

I found the work gripping throughout its hour-and-40-minute length (with no intermission).

Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is not a masterpiece, but it does have 2 1/2 hours of pleasant music and at least one great aria. Its plot is unlikely but exotic (and when does an opera plot have to be likely, anyway?).

Its opening April 19 put it in the plus column with some top-notch singing and some fine playing by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Joe Illick’s leadership. Roberto Oswald’s evocative scenery added atmosphere.

As for the singing, there were riches.

It’s hard to pick a favorite out of the large cast of fine artists in Silent Night, although the performances of soprano Ava Pine and tenor Chad Johnson stick in the mind.

Everybody in Così deserves a round of applause; they are tenor Scott Quinn, baritone Paul Scholten, mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis, soprano Jan Cornelius, baritone Tyler Simpson and soprano Kerriann Otaño. Otaño, a Fort Worth Opera Studio artist, was very much an audience favorite.

Sopranos Vanessa Becerra and Sandra Lopez as the young and old protagonist in With Blood, With Ink made a vivid impression.

In The Pearl Fishers, tenor Sean Panikkar was a standout, as he had been last season in Fort Worth Opera’s La Bohème . Look for him to go places. Also memorable were the bird-twittering soprano of Hailey Clark and the light baritone of Lee Poulis.

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