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ArtBeat: Lights go out, show goes on at Opera Fairbanks' 'L'Italiana'

Mike Dunham
Vivica Genaux as Isabella and Barry Banks as Lindoro in Opera Fairbanks' production of "L'Italiana in Algeri" Opera Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS -- Intermission was coming to a close at the July 5 performance of Opera Fairbanks’ “L’Italiana in Algeri” when someone drove into a power pole and knocked out electricity to a chunk of the city, including the Hering Auditorium.

Not only did the lights go out, so did the ventilation. The temperature was easily in the 80s.

The sweltering, near-full house anxiously awaited word on what would happen next. It’s not like there would be a rescheduling; several of the principal singers -- including Fairbanks-born Vivica Genaux in the title role -- had engagements hot on the heels of their Alaska gig. Some members of the orchestra would be needed for the concerto segment of the Alaska International Piano-e-Competition the following week. And those of us from Anchorage (there were quite a few) were unlikely to be able to make a second trip.

So we sat in the dark and waited. Tenor Barry Banks, singing the male lead Lindoro, came out and performed “Danny Boy” a cappella. Then the cast assembled on stage and did a Q&A with the audience. The first question: Aside from this, what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you in a performance?

Answers ranged from bomb scares to the set catching on fire.

After a half-hour or so the lights came back up and the opera continued.

Other than that, how was it? In a word, excellent. The orchestra, conducted by Gregory Buchalter, was spot-on from the first notes of the overture to the end. The chorus was well-drilled and strong. Jonathon Loy’s staging was effectively comic and nicely timed with the music. The audience laughed a lot. And, as the singing was top-drawer; they also applauded a lot.

Banks was an instant hit. Short, chubby and bald, he did not look like anyone’s idea of the romantic lead, but as soon as he opened his mouth and let fly his gorgeous tenor, every woman in the audience -- at least the ones sitting close to me -- fell in love with him.

The other major male roles were similarly well-sung and engrossingly acted. Rod Nelman as the loony Bey of Algiers and Earle Patriarco as Taddeo, the hapless unrequited lover of the title character, were delightfully animated and rubber-faced. I was reminded of a Lucille Ball schtick, with better music.

The reason an opera buffa filled the Fairbanks auditorium, however, was Vivica Genaux as Isabella, the “Italian Girl” who fears no adversity and takes determined action to get her way. Genaux's hometown retains a lot of affection for her and shares a sense of pride in her accomplishments. Genaux has achieved an international reputation for singing some of the most difficult music ever written, a bit of which is in this opera. She has an unusual ability to sing a long succession of 16th or 32nd (or maybe faster) notes, with each note being hit clearly and with a tiny bit of space between them. I can’t play a piano scale with the speed or precision she achieves with her larynx.

Anchorage singers taking part in the production included Anastasia Jamieson as the long-suffering wife of the Bey and Kyle Gantz as his henchman. They were most effective in the ensembles, with Jamieson’s high notes cresting the big scenes. Gantz got a good response to his second-act aria. Toby Newman, as the servant of the wife of the Bey, was another standout.

By the time the applause ended, it was almost 11:30 p.m. Even in Fairbanks, the summer sun appeared to be going down. But the crowd left in a high mood. I spoke to Anchorage folks who made the trip just to catch the show and thought that on the whole it was better than the Anchorage production, also with Genaux, seen here in 2005.

It was something of a marathon for the mezzo, who had performed “L’Italiana” on July 3 and then came back for one of the opera’s big showpieces, “Pensa alla patria,” at a free Fourth of July concert led by Buchalter. It opened with the overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” -- an unexpected choice for an Independence Day program but perfect for Fairbanks at this time of year -- and concluded with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was trotted out for an encore.

Backstage after the opera, Genaux told me her next project will be a European tour with soprano Kermes that revisits the rivalry between two baroque divas, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, that achieved the status of legend -- and scandal -- in the 18th century. Genaux is Bordoni

“The cover of the CD shows us wearing boxing gloves,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Back to the power pole collision: The Fairbanks Police Department charged Tina L. Bolt, 46, with driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident and driving with a revoked license. She should have just gone to the opera.

More notes from up north

Before heading to “L’Italiana,” I caught part of the Alaska International Piano-e-Competition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can see all the action and recitals at uaf.edu/piano. On Thursday and Friday, the finalists performed the fourth and fifth Beethoven piano concertos and both of the Brahms concertos with the very busy local orchestra. What a show!

Right now, the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival is underway with a renewed orchestral program, canceled last year due to construction issues at UAF. The Festival is offering classes or workshops in chamber music, strings, orchestra, conducting and piano. Violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Jeffrey Solow, familiar to Anchorage audiences via the Autumn Classics chamber music series, are among the instructors. With violinist Phillip Levy, they’ll give a concert on July 16 under the name “Ursa Major.”

Music director Robert Franz will lead the Festival Orchestra in Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony" and, on July 26, Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy." The choir for the latter is being prepared by Emerson Eads. The major concerts take place in Davis Concert Hall.

Also returning is the “Sounds of Nature” feature, in which festival musicians debut pieces written in a short time frame by participants in Stephen Lias’ “Composing in the Wilderness” workshop. Speaking of wilderness, the orchestra will perform in Denali National Park on July 19. More information is available at fsaf.org.

Literary awards announced

The 2014 Contributions to Literacy in Alaska awards will go to former Alaska writer laureate Nancy Lord of Homer, Fireside Books store owner David Cheezem of Palmer and UAF’s Alaska Native Language Archive. The Kashunamiut School District and the Association of Alaska School Boards will be the first recipients of a newly created literacy award on the basis of a Cup’ik language interactive reading program developed in Chevak.

The awards are presented annually by the Alaska Center for the Book. The formal presentation will take place starting at 7:30 p.m. on July 15 at the University of Alaska Anchorage Fine Arts Building. It’s free and will begin with a dessert reception. There’ll also a bit of theater when Steven Hunt directs a staged reading of Zack Rogow’s “Tangled Love: The Life and Work of Yosano Akiko.”

New lit awards applications open

Speaking of reading and writing, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation and Alaska State Council on the Arts are starting a new program for writers, the Alaska Literary Awards. The awards “will recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres.” The awards are sponsored by former state writer laureate Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli.

Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 is eligible to apply for a select number of $5,000 fellowships, to be awarded this fall. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award. The deadline to apply is Sept. 2. More information is available at bit.ly/AKliteraryawards.

Back from the dead

The next “Stories at the Cemetery” event starts at 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 13. This is a self-guided walking tour with 10 costumed actors standing at the gravesites of their characters. Maps will be available at the John Bagoy Gate at Seventh Avenue and Cordova Street. The presentations end at 8 p.m. The event is free, but it’s nice to tip the actors. 

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