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.

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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?

My Salon, A Thank-You (Part I)
March 4, 2010

Salon: An Evening Celebrating the Arts
Saturday, February 13, 2010
7:30 p.m.

As promised by word of mouth, below is the review of the Salon I hosted almost three weeks ago. I have given myself a two-fold difficult task. One, I am reviewing my own performance. Two, I am commenting on non-musical performances–various demonstrations and readings. The event was a blast, and I hope that this post will act less as a review and more as a remembrance of what happened and as a thank-you to all who performed and attended.

I opened the evening with the first prelude, a fitting beginning, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I tried to focus on the clarity of the five-note voicings of each chord. With the repetitive rhythm and arpeggiated pattern, the temptation is to create variety by swelling dramatically in a Romantic style, but I aimed for a more subdued and gentler line of minimal crescendos to let the harmonies themselves create the drama.

After last year’s five serial sketch installments, the Mike Anderson Players returned, featuring Mr. Anderson performing a piece called “Dear Fellow Virginian.” He read an email exchange between novelist Richard Bausch and Senator John Warner of Virginia regarding President Clinton’s impeachment. The email exchange slowly reveals that Senator Warner’s responses were automated. Mark Twain once gave a lecture in which he told the same humorous anecdote five times in a row. The audience was nonplussed after two and three iterations, but by the end, they were in stitches. Like America’s literary jester-king, Mr. Anderson left us laughing.

Mrs. Williamson played Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in A Major. I thank her for carrying on a private goal of mine to have Bach and Brahms performed at every Salon I host. This piece is one of the most beautiful melodies I know, and I find myself physically unable to play it because I linger on every note, every harmony, my ear never fully satiated. Mrs. Williamson played excellently, especially careful to voice the melody and balance the counter melodies of the middle section. She negotiated the terribly stiff action of the piano, a difficult feat when playing the delicate and intricate Brahms intermezzi.

Mr. Robbins gave a bibliophile’s show-and-tell. He presented five of his hand-made books and explained some of the more striking features like the Coptic binding. After a descriptive bibliography and a mini-biography of each book’s author, he passed the books around for a full sensory experience. Mr. Robbins then read a selection from his chapbook Crass Songs of Sand & Brine, which transported us to the east coast, smelling of the stale beer and sea funk of his yesteryears.

I returned to the piano to introduce a Valentine’s theme, playing Prokofiev’s “The Montagues and Capulets,” a transcription from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The piece requires orchestral thinking to bring out the colors of the various instruments and to render the full scope of dynamics. In other words, the piece is as challenging technically as it is fun to play in its dangerous gravity. The first section was well-executed, but the coldly formal dance in the middle had flubs that sounded as if Juliet had taken a golf club to the knee and limped back into the first theme. She and I recovered, but the initial magic was lost in the ending.

Part II promises a less tragic ending. Check soon to see the hilarious and charming conclusion of the Salon.

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.

A Banjo Pioneer Jams with African Musicians
February 18, 2010

Béla Fleck and The Africa Project
The Granada, Dallas
Wednesday, February 10
8:00 p.m.

The crowd was respectfully excited when Béla Fleck appeared on stage alone. He smiled and waved shyly and picked up his banjo, perching himself on the stool stage center. He began playing without a word of introduction. Mr. Fleck turned the Granada Theatre into his bedroom as he improvised for about ten minutes in one key.

The impromptu was a window into the mind of a musician with a seemingly bottomless reserve of imaginative melodies. There were some hesitancies but these minor stumbles are almost desirable as they add to the listener’s sensation that Mr. Fleck is saying something unique, something that will be heard only tonight, something that could be said only at that time.

Mr. Fleck handed over the stage to two Tanzanian musicians, the blind ilimba player, Anania Ngoliga, and the guitar-playing President of the Tanzanian Musicians’ Network, John Kitime. Their sound was pure sunshine, and it brought an immediate smile to my face. The ilimba is a Wagogo thumb-piano, a member of the little-known lamellophone family. Mr. Ngoliga’s technique is a tour de force of prestidigitation. Using only his thumbs, he plays thirty-second note runs up and down the pentatonic scale of the instrument.

Returning to the stage, Mr. Fleck joined his guests, playing a song by Mr. Ngoliga about two women, one who sounds like a chicken, the other a radio. Mr. Ngoliga sang, having fun shaping his voice, both in range and in tone, singing extremely high and low…and like a chicken. Mr. Kitime also sang harmonies; their singing was impressive considering the polyrhythmic accompaniment that they themselves provided.

Mr. Fleck then introduced a group from Mali named N’goni Ba, fronted by Bassekou Kouate. The annoying and embarrassing silences in Mr. Kouate’s solo opening were due to a damaged cable. The other three n’goni players of N’goni Ba showed on stage wearing wireless mic packs, which revealed The Granada’s staff’s mistake as a matter of ill-planning and carelessness. After suffering through the pops and skips, the group entered in full force, the depth of their layered sound coming from four n’goni (the “African banjo,” as Mr. Fleck cheerfully calls it) players, two percussionists, and the lead singer, Ami Sacko, who happens to be Mr. Kouate’s wife.

Mr. Kouate played as if he were the long lost cousin of Jimi Hendrix, at one point using a kind of wah-wah pedal. N’goni Ba wore elaborate orange and gold robes; the other n’goni players provided the bass and some harmonies as they danced; the percussionists kept impeccable time with pristine articulation; and Mrs. Sacko’s full-bodied voice swept over the whole group.

After a brief intermission, the crowd, having imbibed more, became a little too raucous for Mr. Fleck’s second improvisational demonstration. He played some mellow ideas on the cello banjo, ending in some soft-spoken remarks thanking the audience for listening to him, as if apologizing for interrupting their drinking conversation. Mr. Fleck improvised one more song alone, on the standard banjo, using only the tuners to change the pitch. The piece was beautiful in the realm of skill and sound.

The show ended with several songs involving all of the musicians, including the fiddler Casey Driessen. They played a mixture of Tanzanian and Malian traditional music and bluegrass. The special treat of the evening were the grooves of complicated, intricate, and fascinating polyrhythms, patterns built on various claves.

The encore was a song that had recently won, Mr. Fleck humbly told the audience, a Grammy for best pop instrumental. He quickly added that they had not discovered what that meant. The confusion is well-deserved because the song is neither “popular” music nor is it strictly instrumental, yet somehow the Grammy committee recognized the meritable musicianship of all members of Mr. Fleck’s African Project.

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.

The Dallas Debut of a Deaf Composer’s Symphonic Poem Cycle
February 1, 2010

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, January 30, 2010
8:00 p.m.

Pinchas Steinberg, conductor

Smetana – Má Vlast (My Fatherland)

Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, Má Vlast, takes place in the rolling meadowlands of current day Czechoslovakia and tells the story of the mythic early days of the Czech people and their land, Bohemia. Most of the movements describe the landscape or take the listener on a journey through the countryside, but the third and fifth give the work its drama. The third tone poem, Šárka, is based on a Czech folktale in which a young maiden, betrayed by her lover, exacts her revenge by slaughtering him and his army with the help of a group of warrior women. The fifth movement, Tábor, depicts the fifteenth-century Hussites battling against the Germans for their freedom.

Smetana offers us a beautiful symphonic work that is both traditional and forward-looking for its time, traditional in its nationalism but forward-looking in its diversity. As he aims to incite national pride, Smetana is usually able to stir the emotions without pulling cheap musical tricks. He reveals the diversity of emotion, action, and scenery of the Czech people and their land through swelling melodies, careful melodies, delicate textures, fugal counterpoint, and of course, polkas. Although it skimped on the horns, Má Vlast uses the entire orchestral palette, and its dynamic character is operatic rather than limply pastoral.

Steinberg took the stage and then the microphone before the baton. His long introduction gave a more intimate account of Smetana’s life and the story he tells in Má Vlast. Although Steinberg is a good story-teller, he talked too long. Since Má Vlast was the only work on the program for the evening, there was no short piece at the beginning to buy a moment to seat the latecomers.

Five minutes into the first tone poem, I realized the Steinberg had no music stand in front of him. He conducted the whole work from memory. He used no score. That is when it became clear that Steinberg’s opening monologue was not just a proxy for the “seating music,” but he told the audience what he believed. He is passionate about the piece, and his conducting showed that he feels deeply connected to it.

Steinberg demanded a lot of sound from the DSO, sometimes more than the strings were willing (or able) to give him. He also demanded the other extreme of volume as he hushed certain sections often to allow a surprising counter-melody from across the orchestra to rise up and add another dimension to the music. The polka in Vltava (The Moldau) was delightful thanks to Steinburg’s cheery upbeats and buoyant bass lines. Later in the same movement, the first violins had an intonation problem with the exposed octave jumps. The reeds had similar problems in the chorale section in Šárka.

After the intermission, the fourth movement opened up a window into Smetana’s psyche. Smetana went deaf over night and suffered from a high-pitched tone constantly ringing in his mind. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows) is an experiment in counterpoint. Writing multiple overlapping melodies without being able to hear the result is a feat of musical genius. Steinberg did not give the counterpoint of the fourth tone poem a baroque clarity. Instead, it was as if the audience listened through the fog of Smetana’s deafness and experienced the music only as clearly as he ever imagined it.

Tábor, is the best of the six tone poems, the most musically engaging, and the most dramatic without falling into trite patriotism. Blaník, however, is an unfortunate ending to the cycle because the patriotic fervor does not translate well across time and geography.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, the first time that Má Vlast has ever been performed in its entirety in Dallas.