Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Ambiguous Insanity in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw
March 2, 2013

New York City Opera @ Brooklyn Academy of Music
Thursday, February 28, 2013
7:30 p.m.

Benjamin Britten – The Turn of the Screw

Jayce Ogren, Conductor

Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, offers itself to interpretation both as a the tale of a madwoman and as a true ghost story. Under the direction of Sam Buntrock, New York City Opera’s production carefully and elegantly maintains the mystery.

The indeterminacy begins when the Governess (Sara Jakubiak) sees a figure — or is it an apparition? — through the window. The Governess’s description reminds Mrs. Grose (Sharmay Musacchio) of the former valet, Peter Quint (Dominic Armstrong), now deceased.

When the Governess takes Flora (Lauren Worsham) to play by the lake, it is unclear if the child sees the same ghostly figure that the Governess sees: the former governess, Miss Jessel (Jennifer Good Cooper), who died with Peter Quint’s unborn child.

Flora denies she saw anything, but exhibits odd outbursts of aggression. Is she repressing the trauma, or is she acting like the spoiled child she is, only to be transformed in the insane Governess’s eyes into a little girl possessed by an evil spirit?

For each scene, lighting designer David Weiner creates an eerie mood with various-sized orbs of light, lowered and raised slowly, dangling ominously from long cords rising out of sight.

Even the ending gives no clear answers. After Miles (Benjamin P. Wenzelberg) collapses in the Governess’s arms after an encounter with Peter Quint, another boy, dressed exactly as Miles, opens the upstairs door and walks out onto the landing.

Does the shock of seeing a ghost kill Miles, whose own ghost will haunt the Governess? Or, has the actual Miles stumbled upon the Governess who has hallucinated the entire episode?

The delicious ambiguity is at the heart of James’s novella and of NYCO’s production.

Jakubiak’s strong and confident voice gave the performance a stable center around which the unknown and undecided could revolve.

Except for Musacchio, whose lowest notes are warm caramel, Jakubiak was the only one who had the power to project when not very far downstage. The hall was too large for the chamber setting and for the child voices.

As the only adult male voice, Armstrong fills an integral space in the tonal landscape. He handled the role with dramatic nerve, but his glissandi where unconvincing.

Worsham’s and Wenzelberg’s performances were overwhelming, uncanny, all but infecting the audience with the same madness the Governess’s suffers — seeing what was not there.

The thirty-year-old Worsham inhabited the body of a young girl, frolicking and pestering her brother. In the second act, as Miles plays the keyboard, Wenzelberg mimics what the pianist in the pit is playing. His precision made the illusion real, as if his fingers were holding the puppet strings that controlled the orchestra.

Britten’s orchestration sets the ill-omened tone. For example in the beginning, Britten juxtaposes the Governess’s self-reassuring optimism against the dark, spectral chords in the strings. Britten’s opera, however, offers few memorable melodic lines. Even the imagination, expression, and intensity of the orchestration cannot hide that weakness.

The short run (four performances) ended today, Saturday, March 2, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in the Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217.

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.

Set and Costumes Louder than Music in SMU’s Spring Semester Opera
February 9, 2010

SMU’s Meadows Opera Theatre
Saturday, February 6
8:00 p.m.

Mozart – Il Re Pastore

Hank Hammett, director
Paul Phillips, conductor

At Southern Methodist University, the Meadows Opera Theatre production of Il Re Pastore, or The Shepherd King, was something of a cerberus. The three heads of the set, the costumes, and the blocking were all vying for the audience’s attention. One would expect “music” to be in the running since it is ostensibly the most important part of an opera. The set and costumes, however, were so loud, I had a hard time hearing the music at times.

The set was intentionally laughable. A big-faced sun with his sixty-plus foot sun beams and his cloud-smiling friends dominated the stage. The style was a humorous yet disturbing mixture of anime and Don Hertzfeldt cartoons. The bushes created silhouettes similar to the pointy, fiery hair of the characters from Aaron McGruder’s comic strip / animated-cartoon The Boondocks. The sheep props were cute and earned a well-deserved laugh, especially when they returned at the end wearing crowns like their former shepherd now king.

Aminta, the shepherd king, was dressed like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood wearing a neon orange construction-site hazard vest. Alessandro wore a similarly unlikely fire truck red, double-breasted suit with red shoes. While Agenore wore a tamer grey suit, it was highlighted by Malvolio socks and matching yellow bow tie. Elisa’s costume, however, took first place in silliness: tights and two thin layered tops in blue, green, and purple pastels. The costumes would have successfully matched the surreal set, but Tamiri dressed in period throwing the bizarre atmosphere into contradiction with itself.

Ever Mr. Hammet’s favorite, Ms. Donasco took the lead role as Aminta (originally cast for castrato, for those confused about the gender). She was relatively staid compared to the over-acting we’ve seen from her in the past. She left the stage antics to Ms. Galka (Elisa) and Mr. De León (Alessandro). The former flitted about confusing Elisa’s love for Aminta with seductive flirting; the latter reduced Alexander the Great to a self-absorbed metro-sexual buffoon.

…and there was music, too. Mr. Phillips was, as always, solid and sensitive, despite the dull dry acoustics of Bob Hope Theatre. Ms. Donasco’s “Aer tranquillo” was excellent, and her duet with Ms. Galka to end Act I was another treat. Mr. De León sometimes lacked the rhythmic fortitude to push through Mozart’s devilish sixteenth-note runs and turns, but his addition of a pause in one or two key moments showed an otherwise respectable musicality.

For the production, the voice of note was Ms. Galka’s, whose clarity made her arias ring, particularly the opening to Act II, “Barbaro! oh Dio mi vedi divisa dal mio ben.” As one of only two undergraduate students and the youngest singer to land a role, let’s watch for her in the future.