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BWW Review: Jamie Barton Stars as the French Chef in BON APPETIT! A SWEET SOIREE

Sweet Songs about Chocolate Cake

BWW Review: Jamie Barton Stars as the French Chef in BON APPETIT! A SWEET SOIREE
Jamie Barton as Julia Child. Photo:
Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Bon appetit! is not only a polite wish, it's also an opera! Composer Lee Hoiby was fond of watching Julia Child's cooking shows on television.

He and librettist Mark Schulgasser put two episodes of "The French Chef" together and made them the basis of a one-woman opera during which a busy mezzo-soprano creates a chocolate cake while singing and charming the audience. It's quite a trick to do that in real time; at its premiere, in 1989, actress Jean Stapleton performed it live.

On January 8, 2021, Opera Philadelphia presented BON APPETIT! A SWEET SOIREE as a company benefit. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton portrayed Julia Child and Jonathan Easter accompanied her with Hoiby's sparkling, decorative piano score. Keep the Music Going Directors Ryan and Tonya McKinny provided the superb audio and video production.

Star mezzo-soprano Barton sings in all the world's great opera houses, but rarely in comedy. Working in digital media, exhibiting exact comic timing, and baking a chocolate cake while singing require considerable additional skills which she seems to have right at her fingertips. Her facial expressions were unforgettable. (In an interview after the performance, however, the mezzo-soprano admitted to liking the luxury of doing a digital performance, where more than one take could be spliced together. There were also some priceless outtakes.)

The McKinnys, as co-directors, helped her with the comedy, of course, though Barton has done the 20-minute piece many times before in other venues. At the same time, I realize that Ryan and Jamie are best known for their vocal interpretations of Wagner, not the most humorous of composers. I imagine the change is fun for the artists.

Operas have been written about famous women since the very beginning of the art. Works about Queens such as Poppea, Cleopatra, and the Queen of Sheba, for whom Handel wrote wonderful entrance music, tell of their love lives. Sometimes the operas are named after their lovers, but audiences have always been fascinated by famous women like British ruler Elizabeth I, and courtesan Marie Duplessis, along with modern Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Chef Julia Child.

Hoiby's score gives the pianist more than a few knuckle busters but Easter played them with the smoothness of butter creme. He followed Barton's lead and was always there to provide the harmonics that make her huge voice so enthralling.

Hoiby's vocal lines lie well for Barton's voice and her low tones rang with innate resonance despite the twists and turns of the digital platform. The McKinnys' technical work was flawless, too, and I think we will be hearing a great deal more from their production company.

We also need to speak of the other subject of the opera, the chocolate cake. It's all chocolate, the silken cake as well as the butter creme filling and frosting. Child describes it as "A very special, very chocolatey, bittersweet, lovely cake ... almost like a souffle and it's nicer than a souffle ... because it doesn't fall."

Opera Philadelphia's cake stood up to the pressure and looked scrumptious. If you watch the opera this week you might want to try baking le gâteau au chocolat, l'éminence brune (the brown eminence).

BON APPETIT! A SWEET SOIREE is one of the best shows to come out of this time of pandemic, and it will be free to stream on-demand on the Opera Philadelphia Channel on your mobile device via the Operaphila.tv app and on your computer at https://www.operaphila.tv/bon-appetit until January 15, 2021. You can also see it in your living room on your television via AppleTV, Android TV, Roku and Amazon FireTV.

For more information, visit operaphila.tv.




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From This Author Maria Nockin