Archive for the ‘Dallas Opera’ Category

Spectacle Upstages Drama in TDO’s Don Giovanni
October 24, 2010

The Dallas Opera
Friday, October 22, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Don Giovanni

Nicolae Moldoveanu, conductor

Don Giovanni seemed like a perfect choice to open the Dallas Opera’s second season in its new home, the still new and stunning Winspear. Mozart’s masterpiece is a plenitude of human expression, reaching comic highs and tragic lows, exploring inexhaustible lust and selfless love, celebrating hubris and moral didacticism. All of these contradictory but essential human experiences are not only in the story and the libretto, but in the music.

The Dallas Opera’s production gave only a one-sided view.

As the overture began, the curtain rose to reveal Don Giovanni with arms upraised amid a swarm of dancers representing the souls of the women he had seduced, wearing short, white, wispy dresses. The activity on stage detracted from the orchestra. An overture tells the story of the opera in music by introducing the themes to the audience. The overture of Don Giovanni is immaculate, but the premature action on stage turned the prestige of the opera into a mere trick.

The characters were oversexed, especially Zerlina and Masetto who ought to be a chaste, pastoral couple. Without their naïveté, there is no contrast to make Don Giovanni’s lasciviousness meaningful.

The libretto allows for double entendre, especially in “Vedrai carino,” when Zerlina offers her special balm to a wounded Masetto — “feel it beating, touch me here” — but with his hand up her dress, the playful words are flattened into a single meaning.

Moments before, the shenanigans on stage doubled a word’s meaning into an unintended bawdy exclamation, misleading the audience. When Don Giovanni (disguised as his manservant Leporello) reveals himself and beats Masetto for his plans to kill Don Giovanni, he kicks Masetto in the groin. Masetto cries out “la testa mia” (“my head”), but the audience hears something else. Clever, perhaps, but once again, the movement on stage acts as a substitute for the brilliant artistry of the music…

…and the singing. Paulo Szot as Don Giovanni was energetic and entertaining. Morris Robinson as the Commendatore was literally bigger than life. Claire Rutter as Donna Anna was solid in “Or sai chi l’onore.” But no one came to the forefront as the prize singer.

The one-sided interpretation confused the audience concerning the plot. After Hell swallows up Don Giovanni, the audience clapped as if the opera were over, some people even standing up and leaving.

The preference for spectacle on stage over drama in Mozart’s music prepared the audience for the anti-hero ending. At least they could have been bold and cut the moralizing epilogue like the Romantics.

Preparations for the World Premiere of Moby-Dick
May 1, 2010

Moby-Dick, the opera.

The concept is appealing and even fitting on some levels. Herman Melville’s magnum opus is an epic adventure story on the high seas that confronts the relationships between good and evil, knowing and inscrutability, and God and humanity. The prose is lyric, boisterous, and wide, creating a world unto itself. The characters have a spiritual existence beyond the text. Best of all, there are grog-filled sea shanties to be sung. Moby-Dick is both about life and larger than life. Just as opera is.

Why has it taken 149 years for someone to adapt Moby-Dick for opera? For seventy of those years, the book lay fallow. No one paid much attention to Melville’s “ill-compounded mixture,” as one contemporary reviewer named it, until literary critics revived the book in the 1920s.

Since then, however, Moby-Dick has inspired at least four movie adaptations, a handful of stage productions, and many works of music, ranging from W. Francis McBeth’s five-movement work for wind orchestra Of Sailors and Whales to the concept album Leviathan by heavy metal band, Mastodon. The aura of Moby-Dick is in pressed into the social consciousness, especially the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab. Why is it, then, that not until 2010 did a composer and librettist pair up to bring us Moby-Dick the opera?

The answer is not simply that Moby-Dick is a daunting task. There are some basic problems, both artistic and practical, that make Melville’s book simply a rotten choice for an opera adaptation. The two most fundamental problems relate to the plot and the characters. While there are some action-packed adventure scenes, the majority of the story describes Ishmael’s path that led him to the Pequod and a sailor’s life aboard the fated ship.

Even more troubling is the fact that the majority of the book does not deal with the plot, at least not directly. There are poetic chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” that dance in the metaphorical mode. There are the cetology chapters that classify whales and describe in rich language their anatomies. There are also the philosophical chapters that meditate on meaning and power and the nature of existence. Action is what drives a stage production; musing renders actors and singers immobile.

The range of characters is the other major difficulty. An opera needs a mixture of voices. Moby-Dick is made of men. There are still other problems. Part of Melville’s genius was to draw life aboard a ship as a microcosm for the world, but on stage, the single setting would be monotonous. A major source of the drama comes from the narration. Ishmael tells the story sometimes focalizing into other minds. Allowing his narrator to enter other characters’ minds, Melville writes an odyssey that is not only physical but psychological.

Yet, opera, like music and love, is about immediacy. The breakthrough of the novel as a new genre was its ability to express consciousness in new modes, for example, the retrospective glance and the nostalgic understanding of the present. In an opera, there is no past or future. The singers on stage bring the audience to dwell in the now. Opera’s demands for the present would destroy some of the dramatic tension of Moby-Dick.

Before reviewing Jake Heggie’s and Gene Sheer’s work and the Dallas Opera’s performance, I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts that was working through to prepare myself for the experience. Look soon for the review.

One more concern that is one of the most practical and therefore crucial: how the hell are you going to represent a 60 foot-long, 50 ton whale on stage?

Mozart Is Not Postmodern
February 26, 2010

The Dallas Opera
Friday, February 12, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Graeme Jenkins, conductor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Così Fan Tutte

Too much time has passed for me to make accurate comments about the performance on opening night of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, the Dallas Opera’s second production of its inaugural year in the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. Some general comments:

Compared to the drab, industrial, mono-tone grey set for Verdi’s Otello, the first production, the set for Così Fan Tutte was not only more appealing aesthetically, it was thematically clever. The curtain rose to reveal a casino scene, gamblers gathered around the roulette wheel, with none other than Don Alfonso sitting at the head–a fitting symbol of his role as the puppet master who schemes situations to prove all women’s infidelity. He strengthens two young men’s loves for their respective fiancées by demonstrating the value of suspicion.

Nuccia Focile was the best all around singer and gave the most entertaining performance as a playful and whimsical Despina. During intermission, patrons enjoyed a rare downtown Dallas snow scene through the Winspear’s monumental glass walls.

Graeme Jenkins continues to impress us with solid conducting. Not only did he lead the orchestra, but he played the harpsichord continuo for the recitatives–a skilled performance with fluid transitions between the roles.

What was not impressive was the blurb advertising Così Fan Tutte on the Dallas Opera website. The description reads:

This poignant romantic comedy explores the mysteries of the heart with the aid of four attractive young lovers, a crafty maidservant and a jaded man of the world. Filled with timeless lessons about life, love and temptation; in many ways, this is Mozart at his most touching and his most postmodern.

Postmodern? What moron wrote this? The term is anachronistically applied to a composer whose music is the pinnacle of the Classical period. While a critic can take a postmodern approach to works of art before 1960, the work itself can be postmodern only if it falls within the historical bounds of the so-called “postmodern era.”

What is worse, the description of the opera as postmodern is a mangling of the essence of Così Fan Tutte. Mozart’s opera is a love story that coheres to the conventions of its time regarding class and gender, with a moralizing ending: women ought to remain faithful to their husbands. And blurb writers should remain faithful to their objects of description.