by Michael Caruso
The Pennsylvania Ballet danced “Building on Balanchine” April 14 – 17 at the University of the Arts’ Merriam Theater in center city. I caught the final performance of the set on Sunday afternoon, along with an audience that packed the venerable theater, and experienced one of the most moving expressions of fan gratitude I’ve encountered since I started to write about the local arts scene in 1976.
“Building on Balanchine” offered three ballets: two by the program’s namesake, the late George Balanchine, and one a world premiere by Benjamin Millepied of filmland’s “Black Swan” fame. The two Balanchine pieces were “Agon” and “Who Cares?” with Millepied’s “The Part of Darkness” filling in the space in between.
But it was the imminent retirement of longtime principal dance Martha Chamberlain that proved to be the emotional heart of the afternoon, with Chamberlain receiving wave after wave of grateful ovations and bunches of flowers thrown onto the stage at the conclusion of “Who Cares?”
The openly expressed heartfelt sentiment from audience and colleagues alike came from a combination of feelings, thought and memories. Chamberlain has been a stalwart member of the East Falls-based Pennsylvania Ballet for what seems like forever. And yet, there she was at the Merriam Theater dancing at the very top of her form. And Chamberlain’s technical command never looked surer than it did in “The Man I Love” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”
The passion of the former and zest of the latter were most definitely delineated by an embroidered sensuality in “The Man I Love” and the exuberance of a Jazz Age flapper in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” But Chamberlain’s characterizations were securely built upon a technique of linear extension and musicality that she has refined and strengthened through many superb performances on local stages. Every movement fit George Gershwin’s music, here splendidly orchestrated by Hershey Kay, every gesture projected brother Ira’s familiar lyrics, and every inflection delivered Chamberlain’s understanding of the personality those lyrics reveal.
To write that Martha Chamberlain retired at the zenith of her career is an understatement because it doesn’t take in the fullness and rareness of the moment. I saw and heard the final performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch — and none of them compared with the ovation Martha Chamberlain received April 17. And as someone who has seen her dance throughout her career here in Philadelphia, I know she deserved every thunderous clap, every shouted “brava,” and every flower she received.
Local opera lovers will have the chance to take in two of the most popular and acclaimed operatic masterpieces in the standard repertoire this weekend and next. The Opera Company of Philadelphia will present Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” in the Academy of Music April 29, May 1, 4, 6 and 8, with matinee and evening performances available. The Academy of Vocal Arts will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at 7:30 p.m., April 30, May 3 and 5 in its own Warden Theater at 1920 Spruce St, and 7:30 p.m., May 10 and 12 in the Haverford School’s Centennial Hall. Call 215-893-1999 for “Tosca” and 215-735-1685 for “Don Giovanni.”
The OCP’s mounting of “Tosca” will be conducted by its music director, Corrado Rovaris. Stage direction is by Jonathan Eaton, with sets designed by Boyd Ostroff and lighting designed by Drew Billiau. The title role will be sung by soprano Adina Nitescu, with tenor Thiago Arancam as Cavaradossi and baritone Boris Statsenko as Baron Scarpia.
“Tosca” is one of the few Puccini operas set in a very specific place at a very specific period: Rome at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte was still a figure fighting for revolutionary reform and before he had crowned himself Emperor of the French and their Empire and become a reactionary force throttling those very same forces striving for democracy. The opera opens immediately after the overthrow of the Roman Republic. One of its high officials, the Consul Angelotti, has escaped from prison and is hiding out in a small side chapel in a church in which the painter Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of the Madonna, whose face he has based on Angelotti’s sister.