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In recent seasons, the Fort Worth Opera has had a remarkable series of successes. Think of 2012, when Lysistrata and The Marriage of Figaro were a potent double-barreled combination of the new and the old. Or 2014, when Così fan tutte and Silent Night were landmark hits of the same sort.
And 2015? Well, not so much.
The company should be thankful that Hamlet turned out well. It was the high-water mark of the festival; without it, this would have been a pretty drab year, operatically speaking.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about the performances of Hamlet was that they introduced several thousand people to an opera that has been unjustly neglected. The work of composer Ambroise Thomas and librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier was known to opera buffs, but more by reputation than actual knowledge of their compositions.
That Carré and Barbier tinkered with Shakespeare, pretty drastically at times, was probably enough to put a lot of people off; the assumption would be that the music must also be off-putting, or at least unremarkable.
But the first notes played by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra were a graceful introduction to an operatic evening whose music remained pleasant throughout. It would be easy to think of more familiar operas that could justly be shelved to make way for Hamlet.
The pleasures were increased by an excellent cast whose standouts were baritone Wes Mason as Hamlet and soprano Talise Trevigne as Ophelia (her character gets more attention in the opera than in Shakespeare’s play).
The musical direction of Joe Illick and the stage direction and set design of Thaddeus Strassberger were pluses, though Strassberger stumbled once with a gratuitous oral-sex scene involving Hamlet’s mother and stepfather (the audience laughed).
From ho-hum to horror show
La Traviata was OK, though it never generated the kind of sparks that one has a right to expect from Verdi’s most popular opera.
The cast was uneven, with soprano Rachelle Durkin’s decent Violetta a cut above tenor Patrick O’Halloran’s Alfredo, whose voice didn’t have the timbre or maturity that you might expect in the big time.
The most impressive cast member was baritone Nicholas Pallesen as Alfredo’s father, though there were other remarkable performances, including that of soprano Maren Weinberger as Annina.
Illick and the orchestra and chorus were strong, while David Gately’s stage direction and Desmond Heeley’s scenic and costume designs honored tradition.
Dog Days, with music by David T. Little and libretto by Royce Vavrek, undoubtedly has some partisans, but I was repelled by its hyper-aggressiveness. The partisans would probably say that it’s a dark opera on a dark subject (an apocalyptic future) and you should experience it because dwelling on a bad reality is good for you (and bitter medicine is the most effective).
Here and there Little’s music showed hints of a real — if almost hidden — gift, and the opera did have one powerful and moving scene, performed admirably by soprano (and superb actress) Lauren Worsham.
Little and Vavrek are working on the Fort Worth Opera’s JFK, due to be premiered next year. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
One fine project of the Fort Worth Opera, Frontiers, was back for the third time. Frontiers gives a hearing to works in progress — or at least unpublished — with composers and librettists present.
The musical quality was high this year, and in several cases made one amenable to the idea of hearing the final, complete work.
My favorite of the eight works presented was A Song for Susan Smith by composer Zach Redler and librettist Mark Campbell. The music sets a somber but appealing atmosphere and the story is engrossing.
Campbell was also the librettist for Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, one of the finest Fort Worth Opera productions in recent years.