‘Fellow Travelers’ led a strong year in music

The Cincinnati Opera's world premiere of the production was based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 pulpy novel about a doomed gay love affair in Washington, D.C. during the anti-gay Lavender Scare of the 1950s.

click to enlarge Aaron Blake (left) and Joseph Lattanzi in 'Fellow Travelers' - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Aaron Blake (left) and Joseph Lattanzi in 'Fellow Travelers'
The year 2016 was a busy one for Classical music in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra took up residence in the Taft Theatre while Music Hall undergoes renovation. The Cincinnati Opera moved to the Aronoff for the same reason. The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra named a new artistic director and new vocal and instrumental chamber groups fostered the talents of local performers and composers.

Of the many outstanding performances this year, opera wins my top two slots, with the Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere of Fellow Travelers taking top honors. 

Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 pulpy novel about a doomed gay love affair in Washington, D.C. during the anti-gay Lavender Scare of the 1950s, Gregory Spears’ score and Greg Pierce’s libretto created compelling characters and a haunting musical universe that are infinitely more effective than the novel. Spears took inspiration from medieval French troubadour songs, using elegantly ornamented phrases for voice and orchestra to express love and longing. Director Kevin Newbury and conductor Mark Gibson drew powerful performances from a youthful cast headed by tenor Aaron Blake and baritone Joseph Lattanzi (a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alum). 

The entire run sold well and garnered enthusiastic reviews from national and international press. The New York Times named it one of the year’s top Classical music events. Equally important, Fellow Travelers paid off big time for Cincinnati Opera’s and CCM’s investment in Opera Fusion: New Works, the collaboration that provides intensive workshops for opera composers and librettists. 

This is the second Opera Fusion work to be premiered by Cincinnati Opera. Fellow Travelers was first heard in a 2013 Opera Fusion workshop. Premiering this year five days after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fellow Travelers had tragic resonance. 

Another superb opera performance was not by an opera company but came by way of the CCM Philharmonia’s The Great Decade series. In January, conductor Mark Gibson led a sizzling semi-staged account of Richard Strauss’ erotic Salome, with a spectacular cast headed by CCM faculty member Amy Johnson. An almost literal adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s controversial play, Salome is a non-stop tour de force not only for the lead soprano, Johnson, but also for the massive orchestra required for this work. Johnson gave a brilliant, riveting performance as the sensuous teenaged princess infatuated with John the Baptist. When presented with his head, Johnson’s final aria was breathtaking. A tremendous supporting cast included tenor Allan Glassman and mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who both perform regularly at the Met. CCM faculty member Ken Shaw sang the self-righteous Baptist.

Leave it to concert:nova for the unexpected. A February performance featured a nonsensical ballet entitled The Wedding Party at the Eiffel Tower, a 1920s collaboration by the French composers known as Les Six with a libretto by Jean Cocteau. For the audience, the unexpected weren’t the narrators — Cincinnati’s French chef-in-residence Jean-Robert de Cavel and actress, chef and writer Aimée Langrée. Midway through the performance, CSO violist Rebecca Barnes walked down the aisle escorted by her parents and was married — for real — to CSO bassist Boris Astafiev in a ceremony performed by cellist Ted Nelson, sporting a clerical collar. Needless to say, the performance’s antics took on a special energy. 

In October, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra announced the appointment of Eckart Preu as artistic director after a yearlong search. Preu was a big hit at the CCO’s Summermusik series, drawing impressive performances from the musicians and proving himself an affable presence onstage and off.

Finally, the CSO’s move to the Taft has been a solid gain for the orchestra’s sound. The downtown theater’s acoustics greatly enhance the sonic qualities for the ensemble as well as for soloists. It is not without problems — it gets mighty hot in the balcony and the seats aren’t the most comfortable. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying a sound quality that one can only hope will be equaled by the renovated Music Hall. ©