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Indian summer

“Who will dare dance with me the ancient Dagger-Dance of the Californians?” cries Castro the half-breed, smashing his knife into the dirt amidst a Fiesta in old Santa Barbara, circa 1829. To everyone’s astonishment, Natoma, last princess of the island Indians, sinks her dagger in the ground beside Castro’s. After all, the pretty American naval officer has sung a love duet with Natoma’s (whiter) school chum. What has Natoma left to live for? And someone’s blood must flow.

Victor Herbert, Irish born and German bred, was already the triumphant composer of such operettas as Babes in Toyland, The Red Mill, Mlle Modiste and Naughty Marietta when, in 1907, Oscar Hammerstein asked him to compose a grand opera on an American story for the Manhattan Opera Company. The company perished in 1910, but Herbert’s Natoma, sometimes dubbed the first American grand opera, was presented in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York in 1911 and, despite mediocre reviews, remained on the boards till 1914. Mary Garden took a fancy to the role of the unselfish convent-bred chief of the coastal tribes, dignified but passionate but, y’know, dignified. Significant high notes but also significant Looks and regal walks.

The title role, in Natoma’s first full performance in a hundred years Sunday afternoon by the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on West 37th Street, seems designed for a soprano with both a blazing top and full verismo chest voice, and how Garden (or anybody else) managed to sing the damn thing is a mystery—but you know her Dagger-Dance had them at seat’s edge. And for whom (if you hadn’t read the synopsis) was her dagger destined? The snarling half-breed? The faithless sailorman? For Natoma herself? For Neil Patrick Harris as a louche, audience-threatening transsexual nun? And in 1911, Mary’s original leading man was John McCormack. (Recordings of some numbers survive.)

“Lightly staged” (no sets, costumes or playing area) by Alyce Mott, this Natoma was patchily played by an enormous and enthusiastic orchestra under Gerald Steichen, after about nine hours of rehearsal. That was impressive, considering that Herbert, after years of Broadway pit orchestras, was a kid in a candy store on his foray into the big time. (He did get to do this once again, a one-acter called Madeleine for the Met.)

Natoma is full of sweeping tunes and sweeping effects, echoes of Puccini, Bizet, Sullivan, even Wagner, and plenteous pre-echoes of film scores of a later era. We are left in no doubt that the gardens of California are full and fragrant in the moonlight, that surf tumbles on the shore, that dark, brooding rhythms (ah those tribal bassoons!) lurk in the hills and in Indian bloodstreams. It’s kitschy, but the man took orchestration seriously and knew how to get his effects.

There were surprisingly few risible moments in the orchestra’s work, and there’s a certain variety. The dance sequence at the Fiesta gives us a habanera (with castanets), a minuet, a strident march (with brief hymn to the goddess Columbia) from a platoon of visiting American sailors—and then that Dagger-Dance! And did I mention Natoma’s Invocation of Great Manitou?

What Natoma lacks, as most of the new American operas lacked (at the Met, Gatti-Casazza made try after try to launch such a thing), was anything at all that did not reflect back on mid-nineteenth-century European opera, mediated through Broadway operetta. You’d never suspect Debussy or Richard Strauss existed. The new jazzy element, the black element that Gershwin and Arlen would exploit and celebrate, would not appear on the American opera stage for a very long time. There is nothing new here; just pallid imitation of the familiar.

The vocal lines proved, I believe, a further blow to Natoma’s chances to enter the repertory. The title role is just too tough for anyone but a star like Garden to put over. Lara Ryan has a radiant top and was beautiful when she was angry, but Natoma doesn’t stay angry for long. Ryan’s longer lines turned breathy and her chest voice was practically nonexistent. Singers who can manage chest voice (does anyone teach it any more?) often haven’t got silvery tops, and Ryan was taking on more than she or, I suspect, most sopranos can chew.

Monica Yunus, whom one has admired at the Met, played Barbara de la Guerra, Natoma’s great friend but rival in love (yeah, it’s that plot), with a similar sort of desperate striving for notes that were not attractive when they emerged. Their hypotenuse, Lieutenant Paul Merrill, was sung by tenor Tyson Miller, whose brilliant top was not matched by anything very attractive or audible below the staff. Gregory Sheppard sang Barbara’s clueless Spanish aristocrat father, displaying a sizable and venerable bass with an inclination to wobble.

The posse of bad guys was far more likably cast. Baritone Matthew Singer was suave and effective as Barbara’s jealous cousin, especially in a lovely Act I serenade, a typically winning Herbert melody. Robert Blalonek seethed with pretty phrases as Castro, whose half-breed status indicates that none of his emotional swings or daredevil behaviors will be predictable to the sedate white folks who attended the opera in 1911. (How there got to be so many half-breeds since, as every opera, operetta, horse opera and movie informs us, the different races never really find each other attractive is a great puzzle.) Tenor Colin Anderson sang a number about irresistible Spanish girls with a bright sound and real showman’s flare. Ron Loyd was the padre-ex-machina who turned up to save Natoma’s life and the opera’s third act with radiant dark tone.

Hearing Natoma more or less in full (they had to cut the last five bars of music fading away due to time constraints on use of the hall) gives one an idea of what an able, theatrical composer like Herbert was nonetheless up against in the grand opera sweepstakes. His use of “leitmotivs” is chic but doesn’t take us anyplace new or fulfilling. The scenic colors do not enhance the central story as they do in Butterfly, Carmen or Aida—they are the central story. The lovers may sing (or overhear) all the love duets they like, but we do not sense any depth of character or change of heart in their souls. Herbert was a natural but not for opera.

61 comments

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Lohenfal: Are you here? Did you find out what you need from The Old One? Just in case I recommended the Beethoven violin concerto with Zinman and Tetzloff and the Zurich Tonhalle orch., forget it! Don’t waste your money. Shockingly unbalanced recording; the tympani are so overloud and heavily recorded they wipe out all other sound when they play and the 24-minute first movement (! what was Beethoven thinking?!) drags and drags and is plagued by smidgy attacks under Zinman. How DID it get such rave reviews? You know, one just cannot trust critics. You have to hear for yourself. I have attended the Tonhalle live and its acoustic was fine; on this recording there is so much reverberation -- well, you would not believe engineers would do that.
    We still must communicate. I feel certain Bavouzet wants us to. Hee hee.

    • Camille says:

      Gee, I’ve been listening to Bavouzet in the last year—it was some French music and can’t remember what at the moment, but I really like him a lot. He was at Lincoln Center sometime in the last year but when I was not around. Interesting playing. Interesting guy.

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Camille: Bavouzet has recorded the complete piano music
    of Debussy on five Chandos CDs. Stunning work; simply amazing.
    There is no pianistic challenge he does not overcome con mucho
    sprezzatura. You are right; he’s a remarkably interesting man
    and musical artist. We should go to that island off Norway where
    he runs a summer music festival!
    Off to hear Paul Groves and Alex Penda try to sing
    Fidelio tonight, but it is chilly and rain is very threatening. We’ll
    see; I hope to send PTB a report.
    Flora

    • Camille says:

      Oh thanks for the tip about the Chandos series. Love this man’s playing.

      Cannot wait to hear about the Fidelio with those two!!! Do tell us!

      Thanks mucho.

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Camille, herewith a word or two about Fidelio last night,
    but first this must be noted:
    Today is ELEANOR STEBER’S ONE HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY.
    Bless the beauty in her memory; she set the standard in
    so many ways.

    I thought of that last night hearing Fidelio. In the early 1940s
    Eleanor sang Marzelline for Arturo Toscanini, still around on record.
    I’ve never heard it but that voice in ‘mir ist so wunderbar’ had to
    be memorable!

    Now just quick words on the Santa Fe Fidelio. It is a modest
    success, seriously compromised vocally and deficient in
    musical direction, the latter point being a big surprise to me.

    Paul Groves simply does not have enough voice left to make
    much impression in the lead tenor role. He’s solid through G;
    above the stave the voice quickly disappears into a faint husk
    of sound and is soon gone entirely. He claims to be singing
    Lohengrin in Oslo. Not a bright prospect. It is sad; in many
    ways he’s an attractive artist. Just not vocally any more.

    Penda/Pendatchanska is only nominally better than Groves.
    She at least has all the notes, but her pushed-lyric voice is not
    up to the demands of Leonore’s music or drama. In her final
    scenes of Act I the voice was barely heard and her tone much
    troubled by a severe vibrato. In Act II she was more rested and
    made a somewhat better impression. She is announced to sing
    Salome here next summer; I have to wonder.

    But — I had expected Groves and Penda to be challenged by
    their big dramatic roles. What I had not expected was a remarkably
    cut-and-dried orchestral performance by Harry Bickett conducting
    the (perfectly adequate) Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. He simply
    played Beethoven by the book — all was correct and in place, and
    it was not too loud, but it was undramatic and uninteresting. As
    one of my companions said, ‘the music was a century later than
    Harry does well.’ Yup, guess so. Too bad.
    But whoever cast the tenor and soprano should have known what
    they were getting into and they should be ashamed of themselves.
    I felt sorry for the artists who were so clearly over-parted.
    As for the rest of it: Sort of OK. Not a lot more. The production was
    updated to Fascist Germany. Well, no harm done, but no special
    good done either.
    The auditorium was far from filled, even less so after intermission.
    which was too bad as the second part of Fidelio is better music
    than the first half and a little bit better theatre. In all, not a
    great or very interesting evening in the theatre. I will not bother
    with Salome next summer.

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Hi Satisfied: You are right! The weather was clear and coolish. Earlier in the day the skies had been threatening and we doubted the wisdom of going to the opera that night (Jul 16). But by l’heure crepuscule all was just fine and quiet.
    Looking at next season there is almost zero interest. Cold Mountain might work, or might not. I am not very much familiar with her music, but certainly would risk an evening to find out; nice casting for Mountain.
    What does warrant a trip to SFE is the Chamber Music Festival. Six weeks of elegant music. They include plenty of modern music, but properly attend the masterpieces. Their series of noontime one-hour concerts is wildly popular and needs to be expanded in the season. Some crazy good stuff is being done there.
    Back at the opera, I think they are in a casting rut. Time for freshness is at
    hand and that point needs to be bandied about loud and clear. I mean to take
    an adept Rossini/Mozart soprano and have her try to sing Leonore (a Flagstad,
    Lehmann role, after all!), even if she is eager, is just nonsense!
    Ah so! Ta!
    PS: What gave you your name ‘Satisfied?’ I rather like it!

    • Satisfied says:

      To be 100% honest…it was the first name that came to mind years ago when I first registered for Parterre! I’ve learned to take the “So Satisfied…wasn’t Satisfied!” comments with a grain of salt :-/

      Does the Chamber Music Festival ever overlap with the opera season? I hope to return to Santa Fe in the next year or two (…but certainly not next) and would love to do both! I just loved the city, such amazing food (loved Coyote Cafe) and culture!

      I think you’re right about the Santa Fe rut. Though, I did go last year and I was very satisfied (…pun surprisingly not intended) with the casting: Susan Graham, JDD, Michael Fabiano, Brande Rae…all quite wonderful!

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Dear Sat: Yes, there are always positive exceptions to the generalisation I made about casting. Brenda Rae, for example; far as I am concerned she should come back every season! Susan Graham lives here a lot in summer and sometimes wonders why they don’t use her more. Cost is perhaps the reason. Joyce di D — well, yes and no. All in all she is worthwhile. I do wish they’d do Mignon for her.
    The Chamber music festival overlaps the opera 100%. They both play in July and August, the chamber music for just two weeks less than the opera, but in all we
    have about six weeks of chamber music.
    Come see us!
    Flora

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    Camille, Satisfied — just to round off our little animadversion on casting at Santa Fe and Fidelio in particular, it has just come to me the ideal Leonore for this opera company’s 2014 production of the Beethoven would have been Elza van den Heever.
    Just think about it! She would have made the show, and with Jos. Kaiser as Florestan.
    They both have very powerful voices. Next time, maybe. To conduct: Rogister.

    I am still in a state of mild shock from last night and I am going to have an afternoon nap! :) Ta.