A mix of operas large and small drives the season at Central City Opera

The method in artistic director Pelham Pearce’s madness

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Opening Night at Central City Opera. Featured in Central City Opera's 75th anniversary book, "Theatre of Dreams, The Glorious Central City Opera- Celebrating 75 Years."
Courtesy of Central City Opera

Pelham Pearce, general/artistic director of Central City Opera (CCO), insists, “there is method to my madness!”

The madness is expecting audiences to attend opera high in the Colorado mountains. And the method involves a mix of big pieces and small pieces, famed operas and unknown operas, with first-rate casts and imaginative productions. For the 2018 season, Pearce says, “you’ve got Handel, Mozart, Verdi and Mollicone. It represents a broad swath of styles.”

The formula devised through trial and error is to present two major productions in the historic Central City Opera House — this year, Mozart’s Magic Flute and Verdi’s Il Trovatore — and two shorter works in smaller venues — this year, Handel’s Acis and Galatea and The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone, a work that was written for CCO 40 years ago.

The season opens Saturday (July 7) with the Magic Flute; Il Trovatore opens a week later (July 14). These productions run in repertory until Aug. 5, with the shorter works being presented over a span of 10 days, July 25–Aug. 3. (Dates and tickets: centralcityopera.org/2018-events)

The Magic Flute will be the most familiar opera this year. CCO has presented it twice before, and it is a staple from college campuses to major opera houses. A tale of the quest for enlightenment, with a prince and his comedic sidekick, a damsel in distress, a benevolent philosopher king and an evil queen, the opera contains many elements common in the literature and theater of Mozart’s time.

The CCO production will be presented through the eyes of three magic spirits that help guide the action. Pearce explains that in the concept of director Alessandro Talevi, “the piece is about the journey to adulthood and the process of enlightenment that takes us from being a child to being an adult.”

Showing it from the spirits’ perspective will help explain a confusing aspect of the plot: that the ruling characters, The Queen of the Night and Sarastro, switch standing midway through, with the Queen apparently going from good to evil, and Sarastro from evil to good. But whatever you think about the plot, Pearce knows his priorities. “The music is absolutely glorious,” he says. “That’s the point.”

The cast includes CCO debutants Joseph Dennis as Tamino and Jeni Houser as the Queen. Returning artists include Kevin Langan as Sarastro, appearing in his 20th production of Magic Flute, and Katherine Manley as Pamina.

Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s most famed operas, but, Pearce says, “It’s so incredibly hard to cast that it’s not a regular outside of the big houses. Finding four people that you can put together on the stage to do this, and have the hair stand up on the back of your neck — which is the only reason you should do it at all — that’s hard. But when that music is sung well, it is heaven.”

The four singers CCO has are Alexandra Loutsion as Leonora, one of the most demanding dramatic coloratura roles in opera; Jonathan Burton as Manrico, the lead tenor; Lindsay Amman making her CCO debut as the crazed gypsy Azucena, a dramatically challenging role; and Michael Mayes in the difficult Verdi baritone role of Count di Luna.

Beyond casting, Trovatore presents two production challenges. One is that much of the action is in the past. Director Joachim Schamberger, who is also a video designer, holds the key to that. “You may be seeing things that happen off stage via projected video,” Pearce explains.

The other is a plot filled with intrigue and betrayals that strain normal credibility. The production deals with that by placing the action in a neo-medieval, “Game of Thrones-esque” setting. “It fits into that world very well, because it’s all about killing people and burning people up,” Pearce says.

The shorter works have proven very successful for CCO. “When we started doing [one-act operas], I didn’t know how people would respond,” Pearce says. “I don’t know what it is, but we sell out the one-act operas.

CCO had done Face on the Barroom Floor every year since 1978. They decided it was time for a break several years ago and brought it back for the opera’s 40th anniversary. Based on a 19th-century poem and a painting in Central City’s Teller House, it is one of Pearce’s favorite pieces. “Mollicone did a beautiful job,” he says. “There’s a trio in it which I wept at every summer. It’s just beautiful.”

Acis and Galatea was Handel’s most poplar opera at one time. “It’s about nymphs, shepherds and cyclops, but it’s got really beautiful music,” Pearce says. It was written for a wealthy English patron and originally performed outside around a fountain.

“If I could have found a fountain, I would have done that, too,” Pearce says. “But I couldn’t.”