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TITANIA VS CARMEN: Two feisty ladies make for fascinating weekend of dance and music

If you want an excellent example of what small-to-medium-sized arts groups in Kansas City can achieve when they team up, look no further than the October 16-18 production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, a masterpiece from 1692 that has reportedly not been performed here in a half-century. This partnership of the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, the Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City and the Owen/Cox Dance Group was a fresh reminder of how vital a 300-year-old piece of theater can feel when done up right, even when working with a varying range of talent. It was part of a busy weekend of dance and music that also included the opening of the Kansas City Ballet’s 2009-2010 season, with works ranging from 19th century classics of the Imperial Russian Ballet to a piece created just two years ago. If we came away from the weekend feeling more intrigued by the Purcell, it was partly because of the courage it took these small arts groups — one of which, the Owen/Cox Dance Group, was created just a few years ago — to celebrate the 350th birthday of an English master whose music is too rarely heard.

Drawn from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Purcell’s fanciful “semi-opera” is essentially a series of tableau-style masques that provide ample opportunity for some of the most gorgeous music produced by an Englishman. Bruce Sorrellconducted a small pit orchestra that included some fine playing (from oboist Barbara Bishop, cellist Matthew Johnson and harpsichordist Rebecca Bell, for example), even though the ensemble might have been cleaner. Linda Ade Brand’s low-key but sure-handed stage direction was especially strong, and moved singers and dancers about the small stage of Avila University’s intimate Goppert Theater with precision. (The shtick-laden scene between Coridon and Mopsa proved difficult to bring off.)

Countertenor Jay Carter was splendid as Secresie and Phoebus, which he sang with dexterity, scintillating personality and a commanding sense of Baroque style. Victoria Botero sang Titania with virtuosity and bright presence. David Adams seemed in less-than-optimal voice, though some of his rich tenor came through in the Autumn aria. Daniel Denner as King William andSarah Williams as Queen Mary seemed oddly mismatched vocally. Among the others I especially liked soprano Alyssa Nanceas Night and Spring, which she sang with creamy warmth. The choral numbers, which include some of the opera’s most limpidly beautiful music, were brought off stylishly.

The spare set design consisted of five “trees” on wheels, wrapped in what appeared to be wide swatches of green tulle, which were rearranged by the players as they found it necessary. Dappled lighting on the floor suggested a night setting for the first three acts (which were joined), and oranges and yellows represented the daytime setting (Acts 4 and 5 were also combined). Counterfoil to the sparse scenery was the lavish costume design by Marybeth Sorrell, which was (mostly) effective in evoking a fairy-world. Especially nice was the “layered look” of Titania, the Fairy Queen; the dancers’ shift of costume from busy night-wear to light day-wear was a satisfying touch. Most of the buffoonish comic outfits felt out-of-place. The deft choreography by Jennifer Owen was a mixture of classical ballet, Baroque and contemporary. One can only hope this is the beginning of a Kansas City “Purcell renaissance.”

The Kansas City Ballet’s Carmen remains a visually solid piece of dance theater, with well-worked choreography by William Whitener, arresting fabric panels designed by Jason Pollen, excellent guitar solos performed live by Beau Bledsoe, and torchy flamenco choreography by Sara de Luis, executed this time by Danica Sena with more verve and fire than Sara brought to it at the work’s premiere in 2007. Yet I found this revival (October 15-18, Lyric Theatre) less gripping than the original. Kimberly Cowen was strong in a reprise of the title role, imbuing it with the fire you’d expect in the role of this femme fatale, and Logan Pachciarz and Luke Luzicka danced roles of Don José and Escamillo with appropriately “serious” characterizations.

But this time the hour-long piece seemed overlong and at times even aimless. Partly, perhaps, it was just a matter of a piece just not “wearing well,” but there also seemed to be a lessening of energy. The pas de trois with long red ribbon was still likeable, and the fierce pas de deux between Carmen and Escamillo was effective. But the male ensembles showed up the greenness of the four new young men added this season, and the bullfight scene — with bull’s-head-on-a-stick — seemed contrived. The long sequences of dancers streaming on and off stage felt like filler.

Part of the blame lay perhaps in Rodion Shchedrin’s cold, off-putting arrangement of Bizet’s sumptuous music, scored for strings with no winds and a Soviet truckload of percussion. Though originally created for dance (for the arranger’s wife, Maya Plisetskaya), this suite feels rudely un-theatrical, elongating some scenes unnecessarily (such as the Escape to the Gypsy Camp) and making short shrift of essential moments (such as Jose’s agony over desertion versus love).

The program also included the local premiere of Jessica Lang’s Splendid Isolation III, a visually stunning duet from 2007 — set to the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony — featuring a 20-foot-wide pleated skirt that serves as an emblem of the woman’s freedom, or lack thereof. (She frees herself from the skirt finally, only to cling to the man instead.) The initial visual of Stayce Camparo in the center of this striking circle of fabric drew an audible gasp from the audience, as apparently it has in other places the piece has been performed. The tosses and other manipulations of the skirt are impressive, but overall I found the piece cloying. The male’s struggle to reach the woman felt exaggeratedly passionate (danced with detailed energy by Marcus Oatisthe night I attended), and the woman’s endless succession of upward arm-jabs felt like a broken record.

Two excerpts from ballet opened the program, from the Russian tradition from which it all flows. The Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire got a powerful reading by Breanne Stark and Michael Eaton, both showing technical prowess and control. Frescoes is a visually intriguing piece from The Little Humpbacked Horse for four women who begin frozen as in a painting. One by one they come to life for a charming series of variations and ensembles. Despite banal music by Cesare Pugni, the four dancers —Stayce Camparo, Angelina Sansone, Kimberly Cowen and Rachel Coats — made the Saint-Léon/Petipa choreography into something scintillating.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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