Friday, April 15, 2011

SVSU turns to opera with a Baroque charmer

review by Janet I. Martineau
Looking for something different to do Saturday night (7:30) or Sunday afternoon (4)?
Then please, get in the car, drive out to Saginaw Valley State University and buy a ticket to the school production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” opera.
Yes, opera. A first at SVSU. But keep reading anyway.
Rachelle Austin, Donavon Tear and Viktoria Wilson
A mere 60 minutes long, this is a beautiful Baroque charmer performed to near perfection. First, who knew SVSU was home to so many lovely operatic voices!  Then toss in special effects that include a crackling thunderstorm and flames thrown by a sorceress interludes beautifully matched to the music ... a 14-member chorus with acting chops... shadows playing on the walls ...drunken sailors...words sung in English... and you have an audience pleaser, even if it is that dreaded thing called opera.
Kidding aside, music director Kevin Simons and stage director Ric Roberts deliver a show that is visually, vocally and dramatically rock solid. Granted the set and costuming are minimalist, but this is a cast that makes up for that with its voices and acting skills.
Of particular note is the 14-member chorus, dressed in all-black. Even when not singing, they are posed attractively on the stage and always reacting in some way to the storyline. They perch on chairs and stools, sit on the floor, move ballet-like when required, and even sing from the balcony on one occasion. No static lines or movement  for them, as is the case in way too many opera productions.
And despite there are only 14 of them, they project so well, and the Rhea Miller Hall is so rich in acoustics, they sound like double the number.
The soloists also are dynamic vocally and dramatically  -- soprano Viktoria Wilson as the fretful Queen Dido, light soprano Rachelle Austin as the queen’s comforting companion, baritone Donavon Tear as the Trojan hero Aeneas, alto Ellie Frazier as the hunched-over sorceress, tenor David Ryan as a drunken sailor,  with small but effective roles added on from Amanda Falk and Sarah Shearer. 
The duets and trios are especially exquisite. And Frazier does most of her work in the balcony over the stage area, adding to the drama of her powerful evilness (and reminding us, somehow, of the bad witch in “The Wizard of Oz”). 
OK, granted, probably 70 to 80 percent of the time the words they and the chorus are singing are not clear, even though they are in English....especially with the sopranos. But such is often the case in opera, and which is why all the major companies now project the words on screens even when they are sung in English. 
To this critic, opera has been more about enjoying the music more than the words anyway. The program notes give a summary of what is happening. Read that before the show and then just sit back and enjoy the musicality of the human voice and the orchestra accompanying those voices. This production even has a fun one with the chorus laugh singing.
Bravo also to Amanda Mueller, who provides four dance interludes. A graduating senior, Mueller has been a powerhouse in her SVSU “career” as an actress/singer. In “Dido” she is as silent as a mime and shows, in choreography she created, her ability to move at one with the music. Not all dancers and choreographers, sadly, have that innate effortless quality. Apparently, she does.
Simons conducts the seven-member string orchestra, with standout performances by harpsichordist Bryan Latimer and cellist Fred Sunderman.
Please, SVSU...more opera.


  1. This was an excellent show. Rachelle Austin, in particular, was a stand-out, as was Amanda Mueller, but all did a wonderful job. Costumes were great, I thought.

  2. It was marvelous. I may be a little biased but...Thank you, Kevin, for your hard work in the music department. My daughter has grown musically.

  3. Not the first Opera at SVSU, the Mikado was done with an Orchestra and a great cast in the spring of 1990.