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Le Nozze di Figaro at Curtis Institute of Music, 2007

Semele at Arizona Opera, 2006

Orlando at New York City Opera, 2005

The Cunning Little Vixen at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2004

Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera, 2004

Giulio Cesare at Pittsburgh Opera, 2004

Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Tamerlano at Spoleto Festival USA, 2003 Flavio at New York City Opera, 2003 La Clemenza di Tito at Santa Fe Opera, 2002 L’Incoronazione di Poppea at Pittsburgh Opera, 2001

Le Nozze di Figaro at Curtis Institute of Music, 2007

Lewis Whittington in The Evening Bulletin:

There is so much amorous scheming in Mozart’s masterpiece “The Marriage of Figaro,” that it is hard to keep track of who has the hots for whom. Let’s just say Desperate Housewives have nothing on this gang.

The work is full of laughs, yet can be interpreted as much for its darkness, as it is an operatic farce. That is exactly what director Chas Rader-Shieber does in Curtis Opera Theatre’s recent production.

Of course, Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, devises a wicked set-up — Count Almaviva, indulging a legacy of his peerage, can sleep with his wife’s servant, Susanna, on the eve of her wedding. Lucky boy.

Not so lucky for Figaro, the valet, who has other plans for the Count. This pre-nup sets off a comedy of jealousy, betrayal, plotting and lucky for us, brilliantly sardonic Mozart.

The singers get downright slap happy (slamming doors, engaging in busty sight gags) in the environs of Count and Countess Alvamiva’s bedrooms, but not at the expense of the music’s darker dimensions.

The vaudevillian hijinks are established early in the cramped wardrobe cutaway set, with the characters crowding in with mattresses and wedding couture. Act V’s ethereal green and blue-black twilight garden is equally effective for Mozart’s dénouement. Inspired modern sets by Nicholas Vaughan, like act IV’s sterile gold and black master bedroom motif, perfectly frames deeper themes of lust, betrayal and bitterness.

Ashley Thourer’s Susanna and Evan Hughes’ Figaro do most of the vocal heavy lifting throughout, both comedically and dramatically. Figaro’s romantic voice is so confounded by events that he unleashes his revenge for all husbands’ with an ariatic rant, which Mr. Hughes delivers with sinewy power. And all that door slamming and dressing room intrigue doesn’t take away from Charlotte Dobbs’ gorgeously ironic laments as the emotionally-paralyzed Countess.

Katherine Lerner’s gender bending Cherubino, that “nasty boy,” whose lust disarms everyone around him, is hilariously travesti- and reverse travesti- looking in baggy kakhis with her shirt tail hanging out, but no more than a boy in a dress when she is disguised in female drag. There’s nothing draggy about her robust roulades though.

Marquita Raley is just as funny as Marcellina, mugging under a lame chapeau and micro-prancing in leopard pumps. Although limited mostly to dialogue exchanges, vocally, she still gives a peek at her gold-standard mezzo soprano. This is a spirited ensemble, even if some of the singing was uneven. Who cares if Thomas Shivone’s basso bottoms out too soon; his nerdish Dr. Bartolo reclaiming lost bride Marcellina, is heroic.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the propulsive Curtis Symphony Orchestra keep the music vibrantly connected to the performers, never overwhelming the singers, yet never fading against the voices. Bonnie Wagner’s light touch on the recitative fortepiano avoids what can turn into plunkish keyboard narration in the dialogue scenes.

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Le Nozze di Figaro at Curtis Institute of Music, 2007

Peter Burwasser in Philadelphia City Paper:

The finest performances of The Marriage of Figaro are those that bring us closer to the foibles of the human condition that Mozart reveals in his music. In this regard, the staging that the Curtis Opera Theatre presented this past weekend was a great success; exceptionally well-rounded and brilliantly conceived. Over the years, veteran Curtis director Chas Rader-Shieber has given us many smart productions where, on occasion, a sort of smirking cleverness peeks through, but here, he demonstrates an encompassing understanding of one of opera’s greatest masterpieces, with the myriad characters brought vividly to life.

Rader-Shieber opens the action on a startlingly compressed stage, in the closet-like chamber of Figaro and Susanna (“the finest room in the palace,” for Figaro), which makes the royal bedrooms, the set for the next two acts, explode with spaciousness by contrast. He clothes the characters in modern garb, a common practice, but the effect is not in the least anachronistic, quite the opposite: The class distinctions that fire the narrative of the drama seem completely familiar. There are many brilliant touches — including a moment in Act 3, following the wedding march, in which a camera flash-freezes the action, Fellini-like, so we can examine and contemplate the current state of each of the characters. As is usual with Rader-Shieber, the movement of the singers about the stage is both elegant and relevant to the drama.

The cast on opening night was uniformly strong, responding to the firm direction with natural and convincing actor-singing. A standout was certainly the regal soprano of Layla Claire, as the countess, as well as the agile, yet fulsome Cherubino of Tammy Coil. And there was real chemistry between the sweet Susanna of Rinnat Moriah and Evan Hughes as Figaro, who displayed a easy expressiveness both with his plangent voice and his lanky, theatrically elastic stage presence.

Mark Russell Smith seemed somewhat pedantic when he conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra earlier in the season, but in the pit he is extremely impressive; as with Rader-Shieber above the boards, he is well under the skin of this deceptively decorative music, drawing truly marvelous subtleties of dynamics and phrasing from an astonishingly fine bunch of young musicians.

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Semele at Arizona Opera, 2006

Richard Nilsen in The Arizona Republic:

Arizona Opera has done its part to make Semele the hit of the season. Now it’s the audience’s turn to do its part: Show up.

Baroque opera is a hard sell to those expecting more Bohemes and Aidas, but the public would be nuts to miss this screamingly funny and beautifully sung production of Handel’s orphan opera.

You don’t often hear an opera praised for making you laugh, but this is an 18th-century opera and the prime aesthetic value of that era was wit. This is a very witty production, from a cloud moving across the stage on a wheeled scaffold to a heroine who drowns her sorrows by eating ice cream.

Baroque opera can be a difficult sell to modern audiences. They think that all that rigmarole about the Greek gods can only be stuffy. But the libretto, by English playwright William Congreve, with some script-doctoring by Alexander Pope, is rife with irony. Like Pope’s Rape of the Lock, its heroics are mock: This Jove bears closer resemblance to singer Tom Jones than to Olympian Zeus.

And lest purists complain that this treatment trivializes the original, one must remember that the original was comic and ironic: Those virtues are what flowed in the veins of the 18th century›serious themes treated with cool detachment and a sense of the follies of humankind.

So, when Semele looks into a distorting mirror to see her beauty artificially magnified, she sings “Myself I shall adore, if I persist in gazing,” and a series of young men in evening wear bring her continually larger mirrors to stare into. It’s a hoot.

Or when Jove incinerates Semele at the end, offstage, the curtain lifts and we see him and a swirl of stage smoke. And then he exhales a cloud. The topper.

The comedy is delightful but would not be enough, if the music were poorly performed. Luckily, a strong cast does reasonably well with Baroque style, and at least one, Stephanie Blythe as Juno, is world-class. She handles the vocal fireworks beautifully and gives us a well-acted character to boot. Her performance alone would make the ticket purchase worthwhile.

Handel’s music is both bright and profound, and some of his best tunes are found in Semele. The reduced orchestra, directed by Arizona Opera General Director Joel Revzen at the harpsichord, plays in clean style heavily influenced by historic performance practice but without being hamstrung by it. The continuo includes a cello rather than viola da gamba, and for the sake of all our ears, I say thank goodness.

Semele tells the story of a young woman betrothed to a man she doesn’t love who has an affair with the god Jupiter, or Jove. Through this affair, she has ambitions of becoming immortal, but Jupiter has no more care for her than a rock star has for a groupie. Meanwhile, Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, fashions an elaborate revenge that ends with Semele being burned to a cinder by the divine magnificence of Jove.

But while the story comes from Greek mythology, it gets to us through Ovid, who turned the tale comic in his Metamorphoses. And that tone was just what the 18th century understood: Serious need not mean solemn.

And while it is normal to single out the singers for their performances, Semele cannot pass without mentioning the sparkling and ingenious set designs and costumes of David Zinn and the lighting design of Lenore Doxsee, nor the overall conception of production director Chas Rader-Shieber. Too often, these “updated” operas are a painful trial to sit through, but on rare occasions›like this one›the updating is actually more true to the spirit of the original than any false historicism.

Miss this production at your peril.

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Semele at Arizona Opera, 2006

James Reel in the East Valley Tribune:

Her boyfriend is as big a celebrity as they get. He’s set her up in a penthouse with her miniskirts, fishnet stockings and high, frizzy hair; disco balls spin overhead, she never sleeps, and her life is full of sex and music.

But it’s not quite enough for Semele. As they say in the song “Fame,” she wants to live forever. She wants to be a god, just like her boyfriend. Unfortunately, her boyfriend is married to a jealous, vengeful woman, who decides that Semele must literally go down in flames.

Despite how it sounds, Semele doesn’t hang out at Studio 54 in the 1970s; she’s a character in a Roman myth set down by Ovid and made into a 1744 opera by George Frederic Handel.

Arizona Opera is playing “Semele” as a comedy›the story could swing either way›and has moved it to the world of American pop art and glam rock. The production opened in Tucson last weekend and arrives in the Valley on Thursday.

The music hasn’t changed; indeed, the singing is both idiomatic and stunning, a real achievement for a company with no experience in the stylistic peculiarities of Baroque opera.

Only the look is new, and it works beautifully, thanks to the team of director Chas Rader-Shieber, set and costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee. The exact time and place are a little vague, but Warhol-style silkscreen panels of celebrity eyes bring color to the decor, and one of the red sofas seems cast from Mick Jagger’s lips.

Much of the singing is spectacular, particularly that of Stephanie Blythe, Heather Buck and Nathalie Paulin, who alternates the role of Semele with Lisa Saffer. They balance firm line with ease of ornamentation, and sing with fluid floridity.

Blythe is especially good at differentiating her two characters through changes in the weight and projection of her voice.

The men in the cast›David Walker, Scott Ramsay and John Cheek›are also quite good, but at times they offer a bit more personality than projection. Overall, though, the acting is far superior to the cardboard operatic standard.

As disco queen Donna Summer might say, these bad girls (and boys) are hot stuff.

Grade: A

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Orlando at New York City Opera, 2005

Peter G. Davis in New York Magazine:

The New York City Opera’s new production of Orlando is the company’s tenth of a Handel opera—only 32 more to go. Each time one of these remarkable pieces reenters the repertory and audiences respond with such pleasure, I have to pause and wonder: Why this sudden demand for Baroque opera? It’s a type of music theater that only a short time ago was considered incompatible with contemporary tastes, a body of work written off as dead, buried, and irretrievable.

Well, for one thing the standard repertory desperately needs to be refreshed—new operas are scarce and come with no guarantees of success—and Handel has plenty to offer. After all, he never lost his standing as a major composer, and his operas are crammed with great music, readily assimilated and waiting to be rediscovered. Then, too, the stylized conventions of Baroque opera—the mythical plots, formal musical constructions, ritualized dramatic action, departmentalization of sentiment—actually lend themselves to a surprising variety of valid theatrical approaches. There’s really just one way to do Puccini’s Tosca, which depends entirely on how powerfully the cast can act out its melodramatic plot. But a typical Handel opera, simply by its abstract nature, has a flexibility that singers and directors can play with creatively in order to reach the piece’s emotional center. None of the City Opera’s Handel revivals has looked the same, and, so far at least, each director has found a different way to discover and communicate the spirit of the work.

This Orlando, a production first seen at Glimmerglass in the summer of 2003, is no exception. The characters come from Ariosto’s famous epic poem in which the legendary warrior knight Orlando is driven mad by unrequited love for Angelica. That’s the basic premise as the five principals pursue each other through a lush, enchanted forest, but director Chas Rader-Shieber and set designer David Zinn take off from there with leaps of the imagination that are always daring and often breathtaking. This storybook forest is painted on flats that fracture, tilt, and go crazy when Orlando’s world collapses. The illusion of human health and stability is challenged further by showing soldiers pierced by Cupid’s arrows lying onstage in hospital beds and tended to by the nurturing shepherdess Dorinda. Orlando’s wise mentor, the magician Zoroastro, makes his sudden appearances through doors and traps that give us momentary glimpses of his ordered but visionary world, while his chaotic opposite number, the child Amor, capers wildly all over the stage creating as much mischief as he can. Throughout it all we never lose sight of the characters themselves as they continue on their journey to self-discovery.

Another explanation for the present Handel boom is the availability of so many singers equipped to deal with his virtuoso vocal demands, countertenors in particular. Bejun Mehta sings the title role, and he is a riveting presence, not only as a singer of unusual technical polish and expressive eloquence, but also as an actor completely possessed by Orlando’s dilemma. Matthew White may have less spectacular music to sing as Medoro, but his quieter vocal persona has no less poise or authority, while Jennifer Aylmer’s sweet Dorinda and Amy Burton’s majestic Angelica are just about perfect. Add David Pittsinger’s commanding bass as Zoroastro and young Christopher Gomez’s puckish prancing as Amor, all responding eagerly to Antony Walker’s firm musical direction, and one wonders if Handel himself had ever seen his opera in a more compelling production.

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Orlando at New York City Opera, 2005

Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times:

For the new production of Handel’s remarkable opera “Orlando” that opened on Sunday afternoon, the New York City Opera has assembled a splendid cast, headed by the exciting countertenor Bejun Mehta in the title role. Still, if a Handel opera is not to seem like a stagy succession of da capo arias in which characters simply posture themselves and proclaim emotions, a production must help the singers penetrate the beguiling musical surface to tap the dramatic subtext. The director Chas Rader-Shieber’s enchanting production, introduced two years ago at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., does this and more.

No Handel opera is more psychologically resonant, and disturbing, than “Orlando.” The libretto, loosely adapted from Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,” tells of the renowned knight Orlando, who, sick of striving for glory through combat, turns his mind toward love. But the magician Zoroastro, intent on steering Orlando back to the path of valor, entices him into an enchanted forest where confused romantic entanglements drive him mad with jealousy and despair.

In the libretto, the time and place of the action are unclear. Mr. Rader-Shieber and his set and costume designer, David Zinn, embrace that ambiguity. The production is set in a forest that looks like an illustration from a children’s book, with just leafy painted flats and floors and a few tree trunks here and there. Paths in the woods are demarked by marble archways with candelabras, like portals from the rural to the courtly world beyond. When Zoroastro (the robust bass-baritone David Pittsinger) appears to prod Orlando back in line, he pops out of hidden doors in the woods through which we glimpse the blinding whiteness of his magical realm. The costumes are playfully surreal riffs on 18th-century courtly dress.

The curtain goes up to reveal Dorinda, a shepherdess, sung by the sweet-voiced and agile soprano Jennifer Aylmer. Dorinda is a true nature girl who tends to wounded soldiers lying in hospital beds. But did the arrows that pierce them come not from battles but from the bow of Amor? It seems so. Amor, a nonspeaking role played by the young actor Christopher Gomez, is central to this production’s concept. An impish, red-hair youngster, this Amor causes no end of trouble.

Mr. Mehta gives a volatile and vocally daring account of the title role, fearlessly tossing off the coloratura, exulting in the full-voiced high notes and tenderly shaping Handel’s poignant lyrical phrases. He conveys Orlando’s temporary madness with effective subtlety, singing with an eerie and breathy sound, as if unhinged from reality.

The conductor Antony Walker, in his company debut, brings supple pacing and a strong musical profile to his performance, though on this opening day the instrumental ensemble was sometimes shaky. As Angelica, the queen of Cathay, whom Orlando adores, or thinks he does, the soprano Amy Burton sings with rich sound and eloquence. Angelica’s true love, though, is Medoro, an African prince, here depicted as a bookish and bespectacled young man, sung impressively by the countertenor Matthew White in his City Opera debut.

By the end Orlando, restored to sanity, blesses the union of Angelica and Medoro. The opera’s cautionary moral is summed up by the triumphant Zoroastro, who explains that all of our thoughts travel through impenetrable darkness when guided by blind love. Only reason can divert us from chaos, as Orlando, with heavy heart, comes to accept.

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The Cunning Little Vixen at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2004

Mark Thomas Ketterson in Opera News:

Few musical-theater creations can move us in so primal a fashion as The Cunning Little Vixen, Janacek’s hymn to nature and to the natural cycle of human life and mortality. The opera entered Lyric Opera of Chicago’s repertory on November 17, in a stunning production, sung in the original Czech, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber with sets and costumes by David Zinn, all lit with a gentle grace by Lenore Doxsee.

Lyric’s creative team skillfully captured Vixen’s profound melding of human and animal worlds by illuminating the piece with all the affection it deserves, while pushing the conceptual envelope just enough to keep us on our toes. The opera was set in an attic space with a suggestion of twinkling stars in the ceiling beams, a place where antique trunks, gramophones and children’s toys have been lovingly preserved just a step away from the world of adults. An effect of aching nostalgia was achieved, along with a slight blurring of reality, as mobile walls of cheerful sunflowers glided across this interior space and Janacek’s marvelous orchestration evoked a woodland presence as few scores have done. One then accepted without question that the weave of a fluffy sweater became the nap of a squirrel’s fur, or that the sleeve of a tailored topcoat represented a bird’s wing. Small aerial creatures in suit jackets were rendered enchantingly through Daniel Pelzig’s graceful choreography. Presenting human performers as animals without becoming cloying is no small challenge, but each successive image emerged vividly, from the comic posturing of the barnyard flock to the swift, brutal death of the Vixen – a moment that remained frozen in the mind long after the curtain fell.

Singing firmly and with some fluency, Dina Kuznetsova gave a winning performance in the title role, effectively delineating the Vixen’s freely independent spirit and bewitching femininity, although in a very few places orchestral density won aural dominance over her silvery lyric soprano. Jean-Philippe Lafont’s Forester was among the most effective characterizations the baritone has essayed at Lyric, a gruffness of timber belying the warm heart of the man and giving way to some caressing lyricism in his final paean to the woods. The Fox was Lauren Curnow, an enchanting actress with a sweetly expressive face and reams of shimmering tone, who captured the innocently boyish animal to perfection. Standouts in the very consistent ensemble included Dennis Petersen’s poignant transition from boozy Mosquito to heartbroken schoolteacher; Judith Christin’s Wife (think Aunt Pitty-pat in Central Europe); and Nicole Cabell’s butch Rooster, “his” crest emerging from the red pompadour of a ‘50s slicker dude.

Andrew Davis’s love for Vixen – his avowed favorite of Janacek’s operas – showed in his enthusiastically involved demeanor in the pit, as well as in his transcendent handling of the score. Choral work was lovely, and the marriage chorus – an episode sung without set text and sounding like the voice of nature itself – was luminous. The evening concluded with a heartrending, cathartic tableau as man and beast gathered about the widowed Fox, who was perched with his children atop their dollhouse home, gazing fondly upon a framed image of his beloved Vixen.

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The Cunning Little Vixen at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2004

John von Rhein in The Chicago Tribune:

Although Lyric Opera’s enchanting new production of “The Cunning Little Vixen” fills the stage with enough buzzing insects, frisking animals and flapping birds to stock several roadshow versions of “Lion King,” this is not really a kids’ show.

Leos Janacek’s bittersweet opera, which belatedly entered the Lyric repertory Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House, tells us wise, adult things about love, sex, death and the unending cycle of life.

Lyric subscribers whose only previous experience with Janacek has been the great tragic operas will enter a completely different, indeed thought-provoking, realm the moment the curtain rises.

With the orchestra under music director Andrew Davis evoking a summer night in a moon-dappled forest, director Chas Rader-Shieber’s witty vision of the natural world magically springs to life. Frogs hop on yellow swim fins, dancers soar on dragonfly wings, rabbits climb atop huge painted armoires and squirrels crank up an old Victrola.

Like Janacek’s eponymous heroine, the production by set and costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Lenore Doxsee and choreographer Daniel Pelzig is cunning but never merely cute—it respects “Vixen” for the masterpiece it is. There’s not much plot, only nine brief scenes lasting about 90 minutes, tracing the odyssey of Vixen Sharp-Ears (soprano Dina Kuznetsova) from cub to den mother. The music works its unique magic, and a beautifully integrated ensemble of 47 adult and child singers, dancers, chorus and extras takes you to a place you’ve never been before.

Zinn’s clever, eye-filling designs, framed by giant sunflowers and revolving antique furniture, find glimmers of unspoiled nature in the childhood memories adults tuck away in their mental attics. Tilted miniature houses and antique furniture spin on a turntable, lest we forget the opera is about the continuity of life.

When the scene shifts to a farmyard, hens wearing outrageous red wigs and long white dresses cluck around a ’50s kitchen. The Fox (soprano Lauren Curnow) woos the Vixen in an abandoned jalopy, and, before you know it, they have a brood of little foxes. Rader-Shieber gives us little of the erotic attraction of the Forester (baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont) to the Vixen, but at least the creative team refuses to sentimentalize the opera.

Janacek’s atmospheric score is a tapestry of terse dialogues, ravishing orchestral interludes and genre scenes so skillfully drawn you can all but smell the damp moss of the forest. The music requires firm guidance, but fortunately, Lyric’s resident Janacek specialist is a master of its subtleties. Davis savors the score’s lyrical poetry, transparent scoring and idiosyncratic rhythms, and he makes his able orchestra a vivid force in the drama.

Lyric has entrusted many of the principal roles to present and past members of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, none of whom appear to have great difficulty projecting the Czech text clearly. It’s a strong ensemble.

With her luscious, wide-ranging soprano, Kuznetsova makes an irresistibly feisty and charming Vixen, agile of limb as well as voice, scurrying around without missing a beat of her music; this is her great breakout role at Lyric. Curnow’s rich, steady soprano blends beautifully with hers in the love scene, where the Vixen’s foxy suitor gives her a dead rabbit in lieu of an engagement ring. Lafont brings towering vocal strength and sympathy to the Forester, warmly moving in his final apostrophe to the joys of love and the changing of the seasons.

Luxury casting gives us tenor Dennis Petersen as the lovesick Schoolmaster, bass Kevin Langan as the rueful Parson and baritone Philip Kraus as the sentimental poacher, Harasta. Beneath the fur and feathers are such gifted singers as Lauren McNeese (the Dog), Nicole Cabell (Rooster and Jay), Susan Hofflander (Crested Hen) and Langan (Badger). Judith Christin is hooty as both the Forester’s Wife and the gossipy Owl.

Children will adore the singing-and-dancing fauna for their own sake, but adults will come out of “The Cunning Little Vixen” deeply moved and refreshed of spirit. The show is not to be missed.

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The Cunning Little Vixen at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2004

Paula Citron on Toronto’s Classical 96.3 FM:

Love him or hate him, young American director Chas Rader-Shieber is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the opera world. I happen to appreciate his daring and visionary approach to staging. Not everything works all the time, but at least he is always interesting.

It has fallen to Rader-Shieber to mount the first ever production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” which dates from 1924. The opera is a strange hybrid of whimsy and reality which makes it difficult to stage. First of all, there are two parallel stories – one happening in the animal kingdom, the other among the humans, with both worlds sharing the same forest. Thus, the stage director has to get beyond animals that sing and make us care about them in real terms, without ignoring the humans en route. A director also has to contend with the many instrumental interludes that Janacek wrote to evoke his beloved woodlands and the sounds of nature.

Rader-Shieber has chosen a story-book approach, filled with animals that are human-like, despite the fact they have wings or tails. David Zinn’s costume design is startling. Set in the 1950s, the animal kingdom sports the height of fashion with just enough anatomical detail to remind us who they really are. The human element is dressed by Zinn in exaggerated, cartoonish, traditional peasantry, so that the Moravian penchant for embroidery and bright colors is writ large. With each world having its own design element, they can mix freely, yet be distinguishable. Needless to say, the stage is a rainbow riot.

Zinn’s set is festooned with sunflowers against a high wooden barricade. Models of houses, both human and animal, come and go, and great use is made of a revolving inner stage. Of most interest, however, is the central motif which consists of stacks of luggage, chairs, tables and carpets – in short, the type of odds and ends one would find in an attic. There, a young boy sits reading a book, and he looks astonishingly like a juvenile Janice. This youth comes and goes periodically throughout the opera and one gathers we are in his imagination, and he has come to the attic to be on his own. His dress is different from the others yet again, and he could be of any era. The set is full of artifice, and we see the stage hands, dressed like the youth, maneuver the set pieces with the help of the large cast. This changing before our eyes, as it were, adds to the storybook element. The opera actually opens with a little boy who is bourn aloft on wings, leaping from a trunk which later appears among the attic detritus. Is he the loss of innocence? Rader-Shieber and Zinn are nothing if not provocative.

The long musical interludes are set to dance, and animals cavort to Daniel Pelzig’s choreography. They are very human at their play, from the ballroom dancing of the insects, to the energetic frolicking of the rabbits. It is an interesting way to use the music, and while Pelzig’s movement is pretty prosaic, it does do the trick.

With conductor Sir Andrew Davis in the pit, we are reminded of Wagner’s influence on Janacek, and the music is big, bold, thematic and expressive. In fact, the dramatic reading is absolutely gorgeous, and Sir Andrew lets nothing musically get by him or his players, whether the magical sounds of nature, or the emotional travails of the characters, both human and animal.

At the heart of the story is the feisty Vixen who escapes from capture, and finds independence, love and motherhood, only to end her life in a senseless death. Russian lyric soprano Dina Kuznetsova is adorable as the Vixen. She can act and sing, and is able to carry off the tortuous high tessitura of the role with astonishing ease. She is clearly a talent on a meteoric trajectory. Famous French baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont brings his robust voice to the philosophical and cynical Forrester and dominates the stage when he is on it. His ending monologue that reconciles the two worlds is wonderfully interpreted by a master singer. Soprano Lauren Curnow shows a very pretty voice as the amorous Fox who woos and wins the Vixen. Strong among the large support cast are mezzo-soprano Judith Christin as the shrewish Forrester’s Wife and baritone Philip Kraus as the murderous poacher Harasta. Both sing with full-bodied voices. Kudos also to the many accomplished children who have a large role to play in the staging.

Rader-Shieber’s production is visually splendid, and more to the point, helps to inform Janacek’s rapturous music.

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Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera, 2004

David Patrick Stearns at Andante.com:

Considering how long it takes to get to Santa Fe from almost anywhere else, an opera that’s worth the trip is worth a lot.

Most worthwhile, most thoughtful, most impressive all around was Don Giovanni. Am I the only one who has wondered why the title character’s Champagne Aria is always taken at such a fast, expression-defeating tempo? This time it wasn’t — and that was only one of numerous sensible, musical touches from conductor Alan Gilbert, who not only maintained lightness and transparency but keenly supported Chas Rader-Shieber’s staging. Musical and dramatic elements were so well integrated that it was obvious that the conductor had been closely involved with stage rehearsals. One telling example of this integration was Don Giovanni’s Act II serenade, “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” Though the song is ostensibly directed to a woman near a window, the Don sang it to the heavens (which happened, at that point, to be devoid of the nightly lightning) — suggesting that beneath his compulsive seductions, he is indeed searching for a feminine ideal. Gilbert’s expansive tempos gave the aria a dreaminess that supported that idea, revealing a hidden pocket of humanity in a character usually portrayed as 100 percent dishonorable.

On a more macro level, any production must cope with the un-motivated arrivals and exits of Don Giovanni’s nemeses, Elvira, Anna and Ottavio. David Zinn’s blood-and-passion-red set subliminally accounted for all the comings-and-goings by showing us interiors and exteriors full of doors, as if he were designing for a farce. Doors don’t appear onstage unless they’re going to be used, so if everyday logic couldn’t be applied to the opera’s dramaturgy, the set, using less-rational but just-as-viable stage logic, created a world in which the opera’s action wasn’t questionable. Costume-wise, style was paramount, the clothes setting the scene in the not-so-distant past with long black leather coats and matching fedoras.

Mariusz Kwiecien led the cast as a sexy, boyish, spoiled-rotten Don Giovanni — and one that made perfect sense, even as he departed from the usual grace of Mozartean vocal style to show brutish side of his character. Luckily, his recitatives were worked out with a dramatic thoroughness that allowed his character to emerge in many shades.

The other singers, though all excellent, emerged with less vocal and theatrical originality. Few Leporellos project such a sense of co-dependency as Kevin Short did, making his descent into his master’s perfidious world more than just a matter of (im)morality. Ana María Martínez was a visually severe Donna Elvira whose self-righteous pursuit of Don Giovanni was in fact a coming-to-terms with her sensual side. Ying Huang’s Zerlina was so randy that her ultimate flight from Don Giovanni’s advances didn’t entirely make sense, but she sang quite well. The Ottavio, Eric Cutler, is that rarest of creatures, a very tall tenor — and one whose light timbre and fast vibrato are immediately recognizable. Yet his upper range sounded labored, and I’m not sure that the voice, for all its charisma, yet has its final polish.

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Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera, 2004

Craig Smith in The Santa Fe New Mexican:

Thanks to a brilliant young cast, an adventurous production team and conductor Alan Gilbert and the orchestra’s Mozartean love-feast , the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni Saturday was a dazzling theatrical experience. Provocatively designed, aggressively directed by Chas Rader-Shieber but with every movement musically inspired, this was a Giovanni in excelsis.

The fun began before a note was heard, with David Zinn’s imposing set filling the stage. Built in a mixed stylistic bag that suggested 1920s inner-city tenements renovated into 21st-century enclaves, it shrieked one primary color — a red that foreshadowed the spilled blood and simmering rage to come.

As Gilbert began the fateful overture, Duane Schuler’s masterful lighting yielded more subtle reds: the veined crimson of a bruise, the delicate pink of a mouth panting for a kiss, the moist rose of flesh languid with passion. The sounds and shades whispered that while Giovanni’s actions are selfish and reprehensible, they spring from a lust for life rather than from malice. You might as well argue with the sun or the sea as with him.

The forces set in motion flowed into the first scene, where Kevin Short’s boldly sung, energetic Leporello, amused yet wary, waited for his master to finish his latest seduction. From here through Giovanni’s eventual, unspeakable comeuppance, the opera raced on gloriously. For once, this work — which can seem interminable with an uninspired cast — was too short.

Mariusz Kwiecien was magnificent in the title role. His big, bold baritone rang out thrillingly and without apparent effort, and his taut, slender figure radiated sexual energy as he sought new women to love and devour. He took the “champagne” aria at a murderous tempo and without turning a hair, yet managed a delicate lilt in the famous serenade as well. He was just as good in the duets and ensembles, where so much of Giovanni’s music lies. His command of the vital recitatives, like that of his fellow cast members, was first-rate . This was a well-rounded portrayal sure to grow in depth and deviltry.

It seemed clear that Christina Pier’s voluptuous, radiantly voiced Donna Anna was no stranger to Giovanni’s caresses. Her steely toned lust for revenge in Or sai chi l’onore and her limpid yet self-deceiving pleading in Non mi dir showed a woman conflicted and confused, ridden with desire and guilt — after all, her philandering caused the death of her father, Brindley Sherratt’s dignified if hollow-toned Commendatore. No wonder Eric Cutler’s gentle Don Ottavio was of two minds about her. But there were no two minds about Cutler’s noble, bright and flexible singing or his character’s earnest chivalry.

Ana Maria Martinez’s Donna Elvira wanted Giovanni back but was furious with his betrayals; she lusted for revenge but also for the delights of the body he had revealed to her when he tricked her into a false marriage. Martinez navigated those emotional complexities with great intelligence. Her lustrous voice projected both white-hot passion and broken anguish, including a stately Fuggi il traditor and a rapturous, refulgent Mi tradi. Her funny but touching bearing, and Iberian rolled R’s that could etch glass, were additional facets of a complex and pitiable woman.

Ying Huang’s Zerlina was physically and sonically delightful. Both Batti, batti and Vedrai, carino, were wonderfully poised, and she sang them with crystalline clarity that stood in amusing contrast to her sultry-character projection. This Zerlina didn’t need Donna Elvira or anyone else to tell her that Giovanni was ultimate bad news, but her gambler’s spirit led her to play with fire. It was a good thing she had Patrick Carfizzi’s generous-hearted , bronze-voiced Masetto to count on. They made an excellent couple whether petting or pouting. At the end of the opera, it felt certain that these two lovebirds would never stray again.

Speaking of straying, almost everyone in the cast burst ahead of Gilbert’s beat at some point, whether from excitement or inattention I can’t say. He had to rein them in strongly at those points, but there was never any danger of the performance collapsing. It was moving ahead too well for that, borne on a cushion of impressive orchestral sound. This was Gilbert’s first go at Giovanni, and he was everywhere in the sonic web, now strengthening this line, now spinning that one further out, now coaxing, now commanding. SFO is lucky to have him as its first music director.

Rader-Shieber and Zinn collaborated on another Mozart opera in 2002, La Clemenza di Tito. This Giovanni echoes that production to some extent conceptually, including the reliance on one or two basic colors, the well conceived costumes (also by Zinn — Elvira’s can-can pink dress is enough to burn your eyes out) and the clever use of some odd, almost coffin-shaped structures at a climactic point. No, I won’t tell you any more; you’ll have to go see for yourself.

But get your tickets soon: This is a Giovanni to remember.

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Giulio Cesare at Pittsburgh Opera, 2004

Robert Croan in Opera News:

Opera seria lite is what Chas Rader-Shieber devised in his droll staging for Pittsburgh Opera of Handel’s Julius Caesar, which opened in the intimate Byham Theater Feb. 28.

As if to remind us that the work’s original title is Giulio Cesare in Egitto, set and costume designer David Zinn provided a raked stage with a carpet of sand that served alternately as a Cairo beach and indoor flooring where the female characters (in modern dress) had to dig in their high heels while the men trekked effortfully in their polished shoes or combat boots.

It’s too bad that financial exigencies have forced artistic director Christopher Hahn to eliminate the company’s annual small theater production next year, for this, like the previous Street Scene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a thoroughly delightful evening. Rather than a mere string of gorgeous arias — although it was that, too — this Caesar was a clever rethinking of an antique masterpiece that made it accessible for contemporary audiences without desecrating the original. It worked, because Rader-Shieber and music director John Mauceri showed the highest respect for musical values, and the cast, with exceptions only in one or two minor personages, was capable of fulfilling the composer’s vocal demands. It didn’t hurt that they also formed an excellent acting ensemble, or that, with the overlayed comedy brought the libretto’s human emotions and political intrigues into sharp relief.

Central to the production’s success was Bejun Mehta’s potent incarnation of the title character. It was hard to believe (barring an opening night false entrance in his “Aure” aria) that this was the countertenor’s role debut. (He had already performed and recorded the part of Tolomeo.) Blazing with energy and sumptuous in sound, he sculpted every line to lend meaning to the words and feelings. From his exhilarating entrance, in which he negotiated “Presti omai” with jackhammer accuracy and long-breathed coloratura, to Caesar’s third act scena, in which he sustained long notes on the purest Italian vowels and spun legato lines of golden-age dimensions, he was totally at one with the role.

Prima donna cancellations are becoming almost an axiom at Pittsburgh Opera. This time it was due to a snafu in Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s visa application. Instead, the role of Cleopatra was taken on relatively short notice by Sujung Kim, a naturalized American citizen currently residing in Korea. Kim looked gorgeous, she portrayed with conviction a businesswoman queen, and sang with security, providing the evening’s emotional zenith in an exquisite rendition of “Piangero.”

Mezzo-sopranos Gloria Parker, as Cornelia, and Zheng Cao, as Sesto, melted the heart with their duet, “Son nato a lagrimar”— Parker’s warm timbre giving way to comic flair when, as a prisoner, she was made to pick trash off the beach with a spear. Cao did well impersonating the avenging son, though her tone tended to spread and her florid lines sometimes blurred. As Tolomeo, Christophe Dumaux’s countertenor was smaller and less integrated than Mehta’s, but his awkward register breaks served the whining spoiled-brat character to hilarious effect, and his death scene — buried in a mummy case that had functioned as a bench — capped the zany comedic touches. Opera Center bass Krzysztof Kowalewski lacked both the Handelian technique and stage savvy demanded by the relatively prominent role of Achilla, while Deborah Domanski was mostly inaudible as Cleopatra’s male secretary, Nireno. Baritone Daniel Teadt, however, looked and sounded so good that one wished the composer had given poor Curio more to sing.

Mauceri conducted crisply, and the principal horn gave Mehta beautiful support in the obbligato of a shortened “Va, tacito.” The strategic violin solo in Caesar’s bird aria, however, was inaccurate and out of tune.

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Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Michael Kennedy in Opera:

Chas Rader-Shieber’s production of Handel’s Orlando was the star event of the festival. The sets and costumes, by David Zinn, plus Lenore Doxsee’s lighting also made it a treat to behold. Dorinda is no shepherdess but a nurse tending two patients in hospital beds in a wood, both evidently suffering from lovesickness after being struck by Cupid’s arrows. Rader-Shieber daringly introduces Cupid himself as a mute part, sidling in and out of the action, a device that could have become tiresome had it not been handled so delicately and acted with such skill by the 12-year-old Julian Gialanela.

The counter-tenor Bejun Mehta was a convincing Orlando, singing his florid mad scene with immense panache. He commanded quite a heroic tone; he will have been heard at Covent Garden in October as Medoro, the role sung at Glimmerglass by the sweeter-toned Michael Maniaci, who almost stole the show with his Act 2 aria. Joyce Guyer and Christine Brandes as Angelica and Dorinda sang exquisitely throughout and quite wonderful with Medoro in the Act 1 trio, “Consolati o bella,” surely one of Handel’s must sublime inspirations. Brandes was superb to in her nightingale aria, “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti.” The splendid bass David Pittsinger was an impressive Zoroastro. The Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie made a strong impression and the orchestra played stylishly.

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Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times:

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., Aug. 10 — The new productions at the Glimmerglass Opera this summer are engendering yet more debate about a perennial hot topic: the pervasive influence of directors with modernistic staging concepts. This adventurous company inevitably courts such debate by entrusting its offerings to notable strong-minded directors. Often the risks pay off, as with Rhoda Levine’s bitterly comic production of Robert Kurka’s seldom-heard “Good Soldier Schweik,” which I attended on Saturday afternoon, and Chas Rader-Shieber’s enchanting production of Handel’s “Orlando,” which I took in Saturday night.

Mr. Rader-Shieber, the American director (whose imaginative production of Handel’s “Flavio” was presented at the New York City Opera last season), has given audiences here an “Orlando” at once contemporary, fanciful and true to the spirit of the work. At first glance the libretto may seem a simplistic riff on Ariosto: the renowned knight Orlando, sick of seeking glory through combat, turns his attention to love. But the magician Zoroastro, determined to prod Orlando back on the path of valor, leads him to an enchanted forest where romantic entanglements and jealousy drive him mad.

Handel was an insightful psychologist. Those strings of da capo arias poignantly reveal the inner torments of his characters, something Mr. Rader-Shieber and his set and costume designer, David Zinn, make palpably clear. They also know how to put on a good show. So the enchanted forest, depicted just through leafy painted flats, is a place where rural and courtly worlds meet; pathways in the woods are marked by marble archways and candelabras mingle with the trees. In Act I the maiden Dorinda tends to travelers in the forest who sleep in hospital beds, having been pierced through the heart by the arrows of Amor (a puckish, barefooted boy played by the actor Julian Gialanela). The costumes are colorfully surreal riffs on 18th-century courtly dress. When Zoroastro intervenes, he pops out of hidden doors in the forest through which we briefly glimpse the glaring white radiance of his secret world.

The five principals were all splendid: the dashing, vocally dynamic countertenor Bejun Mehta as Orlando; the sturdy bass David Pittsinger as Zoroastro; the sweet-toned soprano Christine Brandes as Dorinda; the bright-voiced soprano Joyce Guyer as Angelica, the object of Orlando’s new-found passion; and Angelica’s true love, Medoro, portrayed by the young male soprano Michael Maniaci, who brought the house down with his beguiling account of Medoro’s sleepy-eyed aria of contented love in Act II.

In this production “Orlando” shimmers with the resonance of the opera’s resonant music and cautionary message: all our thoughts, as Zoroastro explains, travel through impenetrable darkness guided by blind love. Only the illumination of reason can divert us from the abyss.

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Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Peter G. Davis in New York Magazine:

The annual revival of a Baroque opera has also become a Glimmerglass tradition, and this year’s choice is Handel’s Orlando. Despite the freewheeling liberties taken in staging his operas, Handel hasn’t done badly at the hands of contemporary directors, who more often than not are in tune with his highly stylized brand of musical theater. Like so many of his operas, Orlando may be based on ancient legend, but character and relationships matter far more than time and place. In the last production I saw, Peter Sellars had the magician Zoroastro surveying the heavens from Cape Canaveral before moving the action to a trailer park in southern Florida. None of that tinkering really mattered, since Sellars made such an eloquent case for the essence of the piece, a cautionary tale of how love’s power, when misdirected, can drive mortals insane.

At Glimmerglass, director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn took a more surreal approach but made the same point just as powerfully. The knight Orlando and his love-bewitched companions wander through a lush forest governed by both the wise council of Zoroastro and the reckless arrows from Amor’s bow, opposing forces that everyone must confront as they come to terms with their emotions. The sheer poetry of the visual detail and the characters’ expressive movements help make this journey of self-discovery so mesmerizing, not to mention the refined, technically polished Handel singing that one takes for granted these days. Under Bernard Labadie’s pliant musical direction, Bejun Mehta (Orlando), Joyce Guyer (Angelica), Christine Brandes (Dorinda), Michael Maniaci (Medoro), and David Pittsinger (Zoroastro) are all ideally cast. One wonders if the fabled singers of the composer’s time could have bettered them.

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Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Paula Citron in The Toronto Globe and Mail:

To baroque opera lovers, Chas Rader-Shieber is a hero. The young American stage director seems to have an uncanny ability to render static, overlong Handel operas palatable for modern consumption. His debut at Glimmerglass Opera has produced an utterly charming production of the composer’s 1733 classic, Orlando.

The director’s delightful staging is gilded by Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, also making his Glimmerglass debut. Labadie’s excellent work with the singers is all about emotional mood, ranging from exquisite poignancy to thrilling torrents of anguish.

Orlando is another of Handel’s operas taken from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516) which chronicles the fantastic adventures of Charlemagne’s legendary knight, Roland. The magician Zoroastro (bass David Pittsinger) is determined that Orlando (countertenor Bejun Mehta) must give up his love for Angelica (soprano Joyce Guyer) and resume his heroic journey. The knight has been rendered immobile by love to such a degree that when Angelica rejects Orlando for Medoro (male soprano Michael Maniaci), he goes mad.

The representative of level-headedness is the shepherdess Dorinda (soprano Christine Brandes), who, although she is smitten by Medoro, is resigned to the pitfalls of love. Delightful child actor Julian Gialanela, in a non-singing role, is the living incarnation of Amor or Cupid, and his staging by Rader-Shieber is nothing short of brilliant.

Because the opera revolves around people wounded by love, Rader-Shieber has created a hospital in an enchanted arbour, run by Dorinda, whose bedridden victims are pierced by Amor’s arrows. The beautifully painted, sylvan woods that cover the entire stage, as well as the gorgeous costumes, mirror the most gracious aspects of 18th-century esthetics. And because love has made the world topsy-turvy, the stage has a horizontal rake so that nothing is level.

In Rader-Shieber’s hands, stage business moves beyond the predictable. For example, when Angelica begs the gods to escape from Orlando’s incessant attentions, Zoroastro commands a genie to appear carrying a painting, which she hides behind, of the woods.

Fortunately, all the singers can act. The sensational Mehta may have a wild pitch at times, but his thrilling, ringing top, blistering coloratura speed, and gorgeous clarity of sound clearly confirm his growing superstardom. Maniaci’s voice is higher and not as strong; nonetheless, it is warm and creamy in tone, and beautiful in its timbre.

The excellent Pittsinger has notes that seem to come from his toes, and sings with manly, robust command. Guyer has a pretty, fluid, lyric voice, while Brandes, who can sing up a storm, is almost too heavy and dark in sound to fit comfortably in the baroque. Still, what the singers lack in the finer subtleties of early-music singing practice, they make up for in their excellent character portrayals.

Glimmerglass Opera continues until Aug. 26; Orlando runs until Aug. 23; The Good Soldier Schweik until Aug. 25. The 2003 repertoire also includes Don Giovanni and Bluebeard.

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Orlando at Glimmerglass Opera, 2003

Olin Chism in The Dallas Morning News:

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — One of the problems with baroque operas, from many listeners’ standpoint, is that they are dramatically static. The singers get plenty of opportunity to display their prowess, but beyond the vocal fireworks the operas have a hard time proving their theatrical viability.

This is where modern directors and designers can be of great service. A little jazzing up of the piece is not at all unwelcome and can turn a potential yawn of an experience into a grand entertainment.

This is the case with the Glimmerglass Opera’s performances of Handel’s Orlando. Director Chas Rader-Shieber, designer David Zinn and lighting artist Lenore Doxsee have created a spectacle that greatly enhances the work of a superb group of vocal artists.

Handel’s opera tells the story of a knight of Charlemagne who is diverted from the war business by love. A magician intervenes to turn him back to war, but not before some romantic entanglements that drive the poor warrior temporarily insane. All of this is musically illustrated by plenty of florid arias.

It may have been possible in Handel’s day to accept the story straight, but times have changed and the Glimmerglass team plays it tongue-in-cheek, bringing smiles to what was once a work of high seriousness. Meantime, Handel’s music goes its original way.

An example of the approach is the beginning of the opera. Mr. Zinn has designed a forest almost as vivid as a Rousseau painting. All is woody brown and leafy green, the scheme even extending to a painted stage floor. It’s a knockout.

In a clearing sit three hospital beds, two of which are occupied by lovesick men struck down by Cupid’s arrows. The two have an opera super’s dream assignment: They simply lie there and listen to the music for an entire act well over an hour.

Orlando is full of visual surprises. There are entrances through hidden doors, panels slide to reveal a gleaming white group of heroic busts, and the third bed turns up an unexpected occupant. The lighting is superb throughout.

Visually, the talented young cast gets into the spirit of the thing, while singing Handel’s music with remarkable accuracy and good taste.

In an unusual switch, a woman subbed for a man. Orlando was to have been countertenor Bejun Mehta. A sinus infection knocked him out, and a mezzo-soprano, Maia Surace, took his place on short notice Monday afternoon. Glimmerglass has an active apprentice program, and Ms. Surace is one of the participants. She made the most of her good fortune with a vocal and theatrical performance that would have done a veteran of many years proud. Only the fact that the orchestra tended to overpower her in the boldest passages kept her performance from being ideal.

The remainder of the cast were on the mark musically and theatrically. They included Christine Brandes as Dorinda, Joyce Guyer as Angelica, Michael Maniaci as Medoro and David Pittsinger as Zoroastro, the magician. This is an opera dominated by high voices. The deep voice of Mr. Pittsinger was often a welcome relief.

Bernard Labadie conducted an excellent baroque orchestra.

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Tamerlano at Spoleto Festival USA, 2003

Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post:

“Tamerlano,” presented in an updated staging by Chas Rader-Shieber, was a struggle, ultimately successful, to create sympathy for unlikable people expressing themselves in a musical language of formal but rarefied splendor. It worked for two reasons. Tamerlano was sung by a spectacularly gifted young countertenor, Christophe Dumaux (making his American debut), who established an unapologetic standard for the evening: The theatrical language would be overheated, overwrought and overconfident. And nobody punctured his bubble. The staging was intelligent and clarifying, the sets and costumes (by David Zinn) established neat parameters to the drama, and the cast supporting Dumaux reached his standard often enough to carry the audience with them deep into the internecine complexities of Handel’s erotic triangulations.

Not all Handel is so successful. The Spoleto Festival, graced during hard times with full houses, made it look effortless, and despite its three-hour length (and the penitential wooden seats of the Dock Street Theatre), it kept most of its audience.

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Flavio at New York City Opera, 2003

Anne Midgette in The New York Times:

Handel’s opera “Flavio” opens with an aubade, “Ricordati, mio ben,” a morning duet between lovers as one of them leaves their bed. In Chas Rader-Shieber’s delightful production, which opened at City Opera on Sunday afternoon, Vitige is asked to remember not only his beloved, Teodata, but some of his clothes, which he left behind when he climbed down from her balcony. “Remember your shoes,” Teodata tells him in effect as she dangles them teasingly over his head.

Sparkling humor, candy-colored costumes (the shoes were a glittering emerald green) and fine strong voices (like the well-formed mezzo-soprano of Maria Zifchak as Vitige): this opening set the tone for a wonderful afternoon.

In the last couple of decades, a veritable Handel aesthetic has grown up among English-speaking designers, and Mr. Rader-Shieber seems to have picked up a thread that leads back to productions like Nicolas Hytner’s 1988 “Xerxes” at the English National Opera: a colorful, off-the-wall zaniness and cartoon-like touches enlivening the action like visual reflections of the composer’s musical ornaments.

Mr. Rader-Shieber’s deft dollops of visual slapstick — a renegade daisy in a tulip bed fleeing offstage when the king tries to pick it — were backed up by David Zinn’s simple sets, creating a varying range of spaces with walls of box hedge or a pentagonal house that opens like a jewel box to reveal a patterned interior where lovers bill and coo amid stacks of wedding gifts.

“Flavio,” however, is not only a comedy; like other works that blend elements of humor and seriousness, from Shakespeare to “Don Giovanni” to “Oklahoma!,” its jokes go hand in hand with a certain psychological acuity. The blithe light-heartedness of the principal couple, Guido and Emilia, is exploded when Guido kills Emilia’s father, Lotario, to avenge a wrong done to his own (Ugone), and Emilia’s character snaps from bubbling coloratura into plaintive, adagio grief.

The foolish king, Flavio, has to abandon his foppish, love-smitten comedian role when he’s called on to adjudicate the matter. “What shall I do?” he asks, abruptly earnest. So by the time the opera has reached its ensemble happy ending, it has become, among other things, a depiction of people growing up.

But one could argue that the main news about City Opera’s “Flavio” is the music —especially the countertenor Bejun Mehta as Guido and the soprano Jennifer Aylmer as Emilia. Mr. Mehta has been known for some years as a sensation, and he justified his reputation on Sunday with a performance that felt like it was capturing some of the spirit of the great castrati who created Handel’s roles.

The last time I heard Mr. Mehta, he was difficult to hear in the lower part of his voice; no such difficulties were evident at the State Theater. Ms. Aylmer was a worthy partner, with showers of warm easy coloratura in her first aria and full sad sweetness in her later laments.

A slight graininess marked the mezzo-soprano of Mika Shigematsu as Teodata, and there was a reedy quality, a missing core, to the countertenor of David Walker, who was nonetheless effective and funny as Flavio. The blustering fathers, Jan Opalach (Lotario), bass-baritone, and Keith Jameson (Ugone), tenor, blustered indeed, tending to bark florid passages. George Manahan conducted energetically and well. This “Flavio” is one not to miss.

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Flavio at New York City Opera, 2003

John W. Freeman in Opera News:

New York City Opera has built a reputation as something of a Handel company, with a series of productions that explore the master’s works from a variety of modern angles. The most recent addition to the list, and one of the finest, is Flavio (from 1723), which bowed at the New York State Theater on March 6, in a fresh new production created by three youthful company debutants: director Chas Rader-Shieber, set/costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee.

Bearing an aesthetic kinship to some of David Hockney’s opera designs, this Flavio looks deceptively simple, with its wealth of primary colors, cutout structures and stylized flats. Two facades of buildings move forward and back, one opening to reveal a storybook palace, the other a dollhouse residence. From either side, accoutrements of landscaping (hedges, orderly tulip beds) are slid into place to frame the scene changes. Playful and clever, these devices function so smoothly that they never seem gimmicky. Far from getting in the way of the action, they support it with stylized but natural-looking surroundings.

Flavio, with a libretto by Nicola Haym, typifies an ironic view of human behavior often met in Handel’s operas. Nominally a comedy, it has a darker side, even a scene quite like the Commendatore’s death in Don Giovanni. The plot revolves around two couples of the same social station (the young man of one couple is brother to the young woman of the other couple) whose lives are complicated by the prerogatives of Flavio, a mythical Lombard king. The score opens with a sumptuous love duet and closes with an ensemble. All’s well that ends well, but there are ample opportunities along the way for the usual assortment of arias of remorse, anger, amorous disappointment and outright grief, spliced together with sharply pointed dialogue.

This variety of mood gave the singers, all adept Handelians, plenty of elbow room for characterization. In the title role, countertenor David Walker sang a bit too lightly for his one “trumpet” aria, but his coolly elegant tone, polished phrasing and deftly humorous manner lent themselves ideally to a comedy-of-manners approach. The other countertenor, Bejun Mehta, offered a fuller range of vocal body as Guido, one of the lovers, a role that exploited the expressive power of his tone, along with his skills as an emotive singer and actor. The other lover and third male treble role was performed en travesti by Maria Zifchak, whose plummy mezzo and responsive acting made Vitige a lively character. The partners of these two swains were played, respectively, by Jennifer Aylmer (Emilia), an agile, sweetly persuasive soprano, whose sad aria reached poignant depths; and Mika Shigematsu (Teodata), more the cute, spirited soubrette, slender but bright and confidently focused in tone. The lower voices were those of tenor Keith Jameson as the royal counselor, Ugone, father of Teodata and Guido, and bass-baritone Jan Opalach as Lotario, Emilia’s father, the victim of Ugone’s vengeance after an offense committed at court. Both addressed these as character parts, older men not to be trifled with, Jameson with hauteur, Opalach with gruffness.

Apart from an overture that sounded under-rehearsed, the score moved vigorously, yet with supple shaping, under George Manahan’s sure guidance. Faced with the perennial problems of Baroque opera, the production team came up with the usual solutions, such as having another character onstage during da capo arias, plus some new ideas, such as using a tulip for a prop or setting up one of Flavio’s arias as a sporting event. Everything worked wonderfully, giving NYCO another arrow for its Handelian quiver.

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La Clemenza di Tito at Santa Fe Opera, 2002

Paula Citron in The Toronto Globe and Mail:

Mozart’s 1791 opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, was Santa Fe’s first ever production of the opera and featured the radiant vision of debuting director Chas Rader-Shieber and his collaborator, designer David Zinn.

Rader-Shieber is a talent to watch, given his brilliant, economical illumination of Metastasio’s text, which focused on character revelation like a psychological thriller. In fact, the opera flowed like the dialogue of a play.

The story has the Roman emperor Tito (tenor Richard Croft) worn down with the ethical cares of ruling, and by the intrigue and betrayal that surrounds him. Vitellia (Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska) wants her lover Sesto (mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson) to kill Tito, while a subplot concerns Annio (mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato) and his desire to marry Sesto’s sister (soprano Bayrakdarian). The only person Tito can trust is his counsellor Publio (bass Stephen Morscheck).

Zinn’s clever set is a white room in classical style with a sliding back panel that can be opened to reveal outside scenes. The room worked because the opera is an 18th-century drawing-room drama, dealing with ethical and moral concerns of the Age of Enlightenment, despite being set in Ancient Rome. Thus, the four young people are in severe black 18th-century dress in the first act, and after the rebellion against Tito, appear in negative image — tattered white costumes of the same design, a metaphor for their faltering fortunes.

Tito was first resplendent in 18th-century gold, which became downgraded to pale plum in the second act. Publio and the chorus were garbed in colourful costumes that were a collision of periods and styles, part toga, part sari, part African, to reflect the over-riding idea of empire, so at the heart of Tito’s cares. At the end, Tito is a solitary white figure in a field of poppies, his garden of hope that also reeks of death. The totality of Rader-Shieber’s staging was simply breath-taking in its clarity of situation, mood and emotional realism.

Another star was British conductor Kenneth Montgomery who led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a luminous reading of the score. He took chances with tempi so that well-known arias such as Sesto’s Parto, parto sounded unfamiliar, placing the showy coloratura within the meaning of the text with effective use of pauses. Thus the excellent cast of singers musically emphasized drama and motivation rather than pyrotechnics. Montgomery is simply one of this generation’s great opera conductors, and rarely has Mozart sounded so intelligent, perceptive and humane.

Croft has always had a thrilling voice, managing to eject an Italianate sob of passion into his light lyric sound. His Tito radiated both strength and poignancy. Pendatchanska’s Vitellia was sensational, and she should have a huge career, given her marvellous acting skills, wonderful high notes, fabulous lower register and exciting sound. Jepson was very strong on dramatic expression as the beleaguered Sesto, while DiDonato’s robust sparkle gave Annio an impressive, if heavier, voice than usual. Morscheck is just a baby bass, but shows tremendous potential with his clear voice. Bayrakdarian’s Servilia was a smaller role, but this most intelligent of singers was very strong in her characterization. She was delightfully coy in the duet with Annio, and heart-felt in her pleading aria to Vitellia. Her ever-evolving voice, however, seems to be changing once again, becoming almost too heavy for a Mozart soubrette. One felt that the controls of this classical opera were holding her back from the soaring arc of a full-throated sing.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea at Pittsburgh Opera, 2001

Andrew Drukenbrod in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Director Chas Rader-Shieber and set designer David Zinn combined to create a brilliant retelling of the baroque opera from 1643. In their hands, the drama was not only relevant, but fresh and entertaining — simply amazing considering the cultural hurdles. They treated the work more like a Shakespeare play, infusing it with modernity that served to amplify the basic plot thread. Set in a decadent 1980s corporate environment, the back-stabbing and spurned lovers seemed familiar rather than distant.

Rader-Shieber also put engaging tidbits in the production that buoyed the lengthy work. Whether briefly portraying the deposed Empress Ottavia as Evita Peron, poking fun at baroque cadences or throwing in a phone sex scene, it was a smart and witty affair.