NEW YORK - When an American composer sets out to write an opera, to judge from the results and the puffs preliminary surrounding them, often it's as if he starts with the premise: "America needs me to write an opera. To be worthy of such a weighty task, I must choose a subject of the kind generally deemed suitable for opera/appropriate to the needs of American opera. To be a worthy subject for operatic setting, it must fit within the parameters given by the standard repertory/mainstream American theatrical practice/contemporary political discourse." Too often that premise imprisons him in his own ghastly good taste, where he brings forth operas about nothing so much as how great it is to be the right sort of opera. 

British opera composers, on the other hand, seem to start with the premise: "There is music in almost any dramatic subject if you look long and deep enough. Bring it to the ears of the audience through the voices of the performers, and you have an opera. Now what subject out there needs me to find its music?"  Britten, who found music in everything from Melville to Mann to Maupassant by way of Ealing Studios, would seem to be the great precedent. While this doesn't seem to be the approach taken by American opera composers, it is the approach taken by Stephen Sondheim, and at the very least foreshadowed by Sondheim's predecessors, from the Kern of Show Boat to the Loesser of even How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Whether in England or on Broadway, what's risked is the miscommunication that can give rise to obscurity, bad taste, or both. What results is a greater range of subject matter and a more variegated--more playful, even--approach to musical treatment. For better or worse, you just wouldn't get Powder Her Face, which I saw and heard for the first time on December 12 at the BAM Majestic as part of the 1998 Next Wave Festival, from a classically-trained American composer.

Powder Her Face, for those of you who have been huddling under a rock with your Zinka Milanov records these past three years without even last October 26's New Yorker to keep you company, is the first opera by Thomas Ades, London's latest boy-wonder composer to be hyped by English critics determined that they shall not miss the next Benjamin Britten the way they did the last one. It is based on the rise and fall of Margaret Whigham, Duchess of Argyll, among the last of the old-time society beauties, whose brilliant career climaxed 1963 in just about the last of the old-time scandalous divorce trials. Phillip Hensher's libretto compacts her rise and fall into eight shortish scenes, flashed back from 1990's shabby-genteel hotel room where an aging and unnamed Duchess attempts to keep up appearances--cold water seven times a day, for starters (she tells a ladies-magazine writer), and no soap, it does so dry out the skin--against a miasma of unpaid bills. The maid (high soprano), hotel electrician (tenor) and hotel manager (bass) double as various characters from her past, in the manner of the Traveller in Death in Venice.

I'd better say that Powder Her Face is really not the Next Wave Festival's glass of claret. The Next Wave Festival tends to play its musical cards close to the classic-minimalist vest (Adams, Reich, Meredith Monk, and Glass above all), with cautious excursions into the art-rock of Byrne and Eno. Its intermittent ventures into Eastern European postmodernism and contemporary (post)-avant-garde jazz have not been nearly as suc-cessful with its audience; even this year's concert version of Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires, delightful an experience as it was, fell a bit flat. I would no more have expected a Western European composer up-and-coming in established classical circles to appear on the 1998 Next Wave prospectus than I would expect to see the heroic law-man in a town-taming Western wearing the sort of tapestry/brocade vest conventionally as-sociated with dissolute gamblers and villainous land barons. It didn't surprise me, then, to see patrons exiting the BAM Majestic in the course of the first act of Saturday night's performance for all the world as if they were Met subscribers fleeing from the first act of Wozzeck or Billy Budd. I was more surprised that the house was sold out in the first place.

I admit, too, that I found the whole premise of Powder Her Face rather unpromising, even by CNN-opera standards. I mean, who's the Duchess of Argyll to me, or I to the Duchess of Argyll? If Ades had to give us an operatic sex scandal, couldn't he at least have chosen one with some political currency, even if it meant he had to hold off Clinton in Monica for a couple of years? I expected, at best, a scabrously amusing in-joke, elaborately realized, fun to see and hear, but with no dramatic resonance whatsoever; English youth's answer to The Ghosts of Versailles. This being a chamber opera, the curtain rose, not on the ghosts of French aristocrats proclaiming their boredom through tasteful wisps of tone-clusters, but on a hotel electrician in drag, singing a tango in praise of cocksucking. OK, it was heterosexual cocksucking, but at least it promised an evening that wasn't in ghastly good taste. What convinced me soon after that Ades hadn't gone completely off his proverbial rocker by choosing such unpromising material for his first opera was the music the Duchess sang at her first entrance. The dramatic matter is trivial enough--the Duchess demands tea, her usual maid, her furs, deference, oblivious to when not frustrated at the squalid disorder around her. It's the sustained, generally middle-register vocal line the Duchess sings in this scene, emerging from the florid declamation of her servants; it's a vocal counterpart to the sheer self-assertiveness and sheer presence that, diva-like, keep the Duchess going throughout her misadventures. She may be an unpleasant person to meet in real life; but you can't take your eyes or ears off her.

And that's what pleasantly surprised me about Ades' opera--the extent to which he makes the music work to articulate the drama while still remain-ing musical. I found the music gutsy, even attractive in its funky way; but I wouldn't consider it conventionally "accessible".  There's a high degree of rhythmic irregularity and a good deal of raunchy dissonance, empha-sized by the small wind-and-percussion-based instrumental ensemble (when you have two bass clarinets, a contrabass clarinet and a bass sax-ophone in your group, you're bound to get pretty raunchy-sounding). Sometimes the instrumental bleeps and bloops kept getting in the way of the music of the first act, as instrumental bleeps and bloops are wont to do. And the vocal line is basically wide-ranging, often very florid, declamation. If the voices were on occasion drowned out by the instruments, they weren't helped by the instruments being on the stage level with the voices rather than in the orchestra pit the BAM Majestic doesn't have. Think latter-day Ligeti--the more vernacular-minded but still zanily struc-tural Ligeti of the horn trio, recent concertos and piano etudes--only with Piazzolla and Cole Porter peeping from behind the musical web instead of Bartok and Nancarrow.

What Ades has (like Ligeti) is the ability to turn musically on a dime, as it were; to gauge his transitions so that the allusions to pop-music styles and even the odd pop-style tune really seem to be vernacularized ver-sions of the surrounding music, rather than stylistic pastiches popped in any old way as you find in even the best American eclectics such as William Bolcom (or for that matter, London's earlier boy wonder Peter Maxwell Davies). He needs to be able to turn on a dime to keep the pastiches from bogging down the action. Likewise, he can sculpt the stan-dard-issue post-Bergian expresssionistic gestures into real musically continuous lines as necessary, with palpable shape that relates to both the words and the feelings behind them. The third scene, the maid's "fancy that" wedding-reception aria (in which she muses on the extrava-gances of the Duke and Duchess--imagine, bathing in milk and almonds!) is a particularly nice example, especially since the bleeps and bloops had let up a bit--or was I just getting used to Ades' idiom?

And what's true moment by moment is also true on the larger scale. This really struck home in the first scene of the second act, which represents the divorce trial itself. We begin with a duet of two spectators (maid and electrician), agitated gossip with a slow and smoochy waltz-time refrain--followed by what seems to be a passacaglia-like movement (I'm guessing here; I haven't seen the score) which keeps the judge's (hotel manager's) increasing indignation within the forms of the law--followed by the Duchess's "I-will-survive" assertion of outraged innocence as she at-tempts, Baba-like, to summmon her car, a steady and dignified arioso which attempts without success to break down the orchestra's inexorable passacaglia-- interspersed with the spectators' waltz, now with an undercurrent of condemnation. It's a lot closer to how Mozart or even Rossini musicalized dramatic action than anything in, say, The Ghosts of Versailles.  In that context, the minor-triad progres-sions that conclude that scene, and that permeate the music thereafter, expose a realm of disillusioned loneliness and sadness underneath the eclectically post-expressionist frenzy far beyond the usual "look, Ma! I'm writing triads!" business you get these days. That gives the final con-frontation between the Duchess and the hotel manager who comes to evict her from her seedy hotel room at the end all the resonance of someone faced with her/his own mortality. The music, for all its bleeps and bloops and irritations, creates a real dramatic world; and that's the be-ginning of operatic wisdom.

The music also explains to me how Ades could have devoted an opera to someone who was, let's face it, famous merely for being famous, without even grafting on a factitious inner life to counteract the fame. The Duchess is extravagant, self-centered, one for whom whatever she does and wants at a given moment is the most important thing happening in that place at that moment--for is not her entire world but a projection outward of her desires? Yet her sheer presence never falters; she keeps herself as perfectly self-possessed emotionally as she is perfectly turned out physically, even in her declining years, until her credit runs out. In short, she is a diva, as pure a diva as they come, but without the talent or the historical signifi-cance to distract herself or us into mistaking her for anything else; she is the "umile ancella" to nothing and nobody. Ades and Henscher are show-ing us what being a diva is like; and showing us the diva in us. 

As I noted earlier, putting the orchestra on the level of the stage action prejudiced the balance in favor of the orchestra; it's to the credit of conduc-tor Robert Spano that the orchestra didn't get entirely out of hand. In the circumstances, the singers quite sensibly refused to shout, but continued to sing as well as they could on the (correct) assumption that if they did so they could be heard by the attentive among us. This was particularly audible for tenor Trevor Smith (electrician, etc.)-- a lovely voice, with good lega-to and sterling musicianship, but small. As an actor, he has a certain distinctive dignified panache that served him equally well as a 30s lounge lizard singing a naughty foxtrot and as a hotel waiter trying in vain to keep his pants up. Heather Buck, as the soubrette from Hell (maid, etc.) had the most attractive voice among the singers--a ringing high coloratura soprano all the way to the F above the staff--and dramati-cally and musically might just give Lisa "Willing-to-do-anythng-and-even-better-to-mean-it" Saffer a bit of competition. Bass Allen Schrott (hotel manager, etc.), a long, tall glass of water, certainly has the physique du role in his incarnation as the Duke; because so much of his music leaps around rather stolidly in the manner of Wozzeck's doctor, it was all the more gratifying that the cantabile bits in the final scene came out as sonorous and as reasonably legato as they did. Soprano Maire O'Brien (The Duchess) has the solid and wide-ranging lyric soprano the music needs, if hardly the spectacular personal glamor the drama might lead one to expect (where's Catherine Malfitano where you need her?) Those oversized hats designer Anne C. Patterson gave her didn't help. But from time to time, a certain as-surance came through in her demeanor that wasn't just part of the character. O'Brien may not yet--perhaps not ever--be a diva. But she at least can make enough of her inner diva to not be overwhelmed by playing a diva; even to look a bit better in the process.

— Indiana Loiterer III

 

WASHINGTON/BALTIMORE: It came as no surprise when The Traveling Fedora Road Show pitched its tent at the Kennedy Center this fall. After all, Washington Opera Artistic Figurehead Placido Domingo has proclaimed Loris to be one of his favorite roles; he's helped commandeer the lovable glam/verismo minorpiece on its global trek as a vehicle for Himself and Mirella Freni. Unfortunately, as seen on November 9, the one-set-fits-all La Scala production was all too bus-and-truck. Luisa Spinatelli's scuffed parquet turntable was littered with unsightly spike marks and men's club furniture. Lamberto Puggelli's action had the deco-rous air of a semi-staged concert performance (the heroine, stranded alone mid-stage at the close of Act I, must address a photograph with her necrophiliac farewell to Vladimir). The whole affair seemed determined to prove that Giordano's foray into Sardoodledum is far shabbier but de--cidedly less shocking than Tosca.

After her Met telecast, I was ready to dismiss Freni in Fedora as a mensch sent to do the job of a monstre sacré to accuse her of lacing a teetering drag act of a role into the sensible shoes of a "thoughtful" interpretation. Freni's approach is a tad introspective to be truly definitive. Missing, at least physically, was the quicksilver pivot from hysteria to self-possession essential to the character of this bipolar princess. But vocally Freni lives and dies in this part, expertly applying the colors of a voice in its clouded but vivid twilight. Insights abounded: In the repeated "T'amo" during the Act II encounter with Loris, she rendered the first with a steely passion that was all playacting, then sang the second with a hushed, pulsing vul--nerability: Hearing herself articulate the love she means to sham, Fedora suddenly recognizes the truth of it. With moments like this, Freni com-mands renewed admiration for her own artistry and new respect for Giordano's opera.

As Loris, Domingo gets to foreshadow doom on his smoky lower register, trumpet anguish and ardor higher up, but never needs to strain the very top. As a actor, Himself was on his accustomed auto-pilot mode, a case of "If I'm wearing a fedora this must be Fedora." With a fruity and limpid soprano, Judith Howarth played Countess Olga as Rosalind Russell might have: world-weary and wisecracking, but still with a dash of madcap caprice. Once the thinking queen's barihunk, Richard Stilwell now plays every role with a touch of the dotard, but projected solidly as de Seriex. He needed to lose his Act II Chocolate Soldier getup and gain a decent wig. (The production clearly blew its entire hair budget on a very funny Andy Warhol ‘do for the pianist Lazinski). Roberto Abaddo conducted a slightly more relaxed version than he led at the Met but continues to relish the fact that Fedora's orchestra gets most of the good tunes.

Advance publicity, fan page gush, and La Cieca's libidinous ravings do not exaggerate Jose Cura's compelling physicality, admired on November 18, midway through the run of Washington Opera's Samson et DalilaBut most impressive is the way he puts the eye-candy at the service of a deep identification with his character. Clad in dazzling white, he bestrides Act I, a monument of physical strength and moral authority. His capitulation to Dalila comes as the all-too-topical downfall of a charismatic leader conquered by his own compulsions. Like an addict entering withdrawal, this Samson collapses into a passive heap upon Dalila's cushions -- muscles limp, eyes glazing. The effect is devastating; sort of like discovering that International Mr. Leather is a bottom. Dressed in tatters, smeared in blood, and nearly doubled over as he pushes the millstone, Cura in Act III em-bodies the character's abject shame with Strassbergian realism, setting up the final act of restored faith and divine retribution for a thriling conclusion.

Oh, and he sings too. Offering more punch than ping, Cura can't shake that "baritonal" label. Act I, where Samson is a kind souped-up Bach Evangelist, found him wanting in declamatory zeal and clarion edge. In Act II, he crooned a series of hooty "je t'aime"s, adding dubiously supported tone to his portrait of erotic submission. But in Act III, Samson's physical misery and moral torment pardoxically liberated Cura to to a freer, Italianate attack that is clearly his natural metier. Suddenly the timbre had more juice, the phrasing more color, and the diction more bite.

As Dalila, Denyce Graves nearly matches Cura for presence and pulchritude. Together they offer a rare convergence of physique duo role that recalls that phrase from Mawrdew Czgowchwz "... the way you think about opera in the bathtub."  Washington's own was in variable voice, occasionally letting the plush go fuzzy or the sheen go brassy, and lacking authority below the break. For half of the evening, her words seemed to be going for very little ("l'amour," "la mort," whatever...) but once her interview with the High Priest heated up, she began to sink her teeth in. If there's nothing epochal about her renditions of the key arias, her ability to maintain musical concentration on "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" while caressing Cura's pecs has to be accounted as some sort of historic feat. Justino Diaz, grand prêtre, completed the triangle with the trenchant enunciation wanting in his junior colleagues. The portrayal was shallow, but he played the cardboard heavy with delectable elan.

Giancarlo del Monico's production (a time-share from Bonn) deftly combines ritualistic blocking in the public scenes with character-driven detail in the intimate scenes. The only major miscalculation was staging the Bacchanale as a human sacrifice: after the evisceration of a poor temple dancer, the taunting of Samson comes as a ho-hum anticlimax. Michael Scott's color-coded costumes split the difference between "ethnic" touches (big patterns and body paint) and the Cecil B. deMille look (glitz, chiffon, and headdresses). His massive set featured a trapezoidal, textured floor that first appeared in very steep rake, Hebrews stretched prostrate upon it, for a striking opening image. "He-does-it-with-mirrors" Domingo, now wielding the baton, emphasized Romantic fervor over the Baroque tricks that Saint Saëns pulled out of his academic hat.

That Simon Boccanegra ultimately succeeded despite some dispiriting individual performances was a tribute to conductor Heinz Fricke. Though tightfisted with rubato, the Washington Opera's music director made the score a seamless tone poem of eternal sea and human transience. The production ("in association" with London's Royal Opera) melded director Ian Judge's subtle choreography with John Gunter's unit set, admirably arching the opera's great time span to set private joys and sorrows upon a political canvas. With raking shadows, distorted angles and saturated palette, this Dr. Caligari-meets-Tintoretto creation featured two free-floating walls, one a great curve painted with a view of the harbor of Genoa. Diedre Clancey's similarly distorted 1850s costumes sug-gested a time-warped Traviata, but triumphed through audacious theatrical effect.

Perhaps fatigued in the final performance of the run on November 24, Simon Estes alternated between two voices: a hooded, sand-paper mezza voce (for intrigue, regret, and mooning affection) and a booming, burnished forte (for everything else, including a blustering reunion duet with Amelia). When he sought finer gradations in the andante portion of "Plebe! Patrize!," Estes crashed-and-burned on the collision of good artistic intentions with failing vocal technique. Notes cracked or did not emerge at all while the singer's foot audibly beat the stage in a convulsive struggle to get the music out. He relaxed for the second half of the opera and survived to careen to the floor in a stagey-but-moving final scene.

While Kallen Esperian is nobody's major contender as a mistress of Verdi line or Italiante tinta, she was serviceable and spirited as Amelia. Carlos Morena lunged at his strident top notes but sensitively phrased Gabriele's less strenuous passages. An economy-model Tito Gobbi, Bruno Pola inflected his dryish voice with a welcome dose of scenery-chomping brio and cut a Napoleonic figure as Paolo. As Fiesco, Eric Owens, tagged in the Washington Opera's publicity as a winner of Domingo's Operalia competition, simply wasn't ready for an important role with an important company.

The question is, does the Washington Opera really believe that it is an important company? While it positions itself for a spot on the inter-national opera map with flashy publicity and a lineup of stars un-precedented in its history, the company continues to send a mixed message with lapses in casting, shared and borrowed productions of variable merit, and a preponderance of traffic-cop stage direction.

The Baltimore Opera Company, on the other hand, suffers from no such identity crisis. It offers old fashioned opera pure and simple. Low-concept productions of 19th Century standards keep the focus squarely on the singers. This what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude finds the perfect setting in the city's Lyric Opera House. This ren-ovated structure is half utilitarian civic auditorium, half golden age shrine, ringed with the immortal names of GLVCK, SCHVBERT, PVCCINI, and MACDOWELL (?!?). The company's lack of pretense, typical of the contrast between Baltimore and neighboring Washington, is borne out in its audiences. Beyond the hard core of Mavens, Washington Operagoers spend intermissions on stocks, legal briefs, diets, the Redskins, and politics. In Baltimore, they're saying Ghena Dimitrova sounds "exactly like Callas" or comparing unfavorably tonight’s revival of Pagliacci to a 1942 performance.

After recent attempts by its counterparts in Washington and Virginia to palm off Pagliacci as a solo feature, Baltimore proved its old-fashioned salt by restoring Cavalleria Rusticana to the perennial verismo sister act. In a move that surely had more to do with economy than concept, both operas (Pag came first) occupied the same sunbaked Sicilian village square set. Perverting the novel openings of both operas, Sicilian director/designer Roberto Laganà (no doubt imported to imbue the proceedings with "authenticity") had the curtain up for both Tonio's prologue and Turiddu's serenade. He further derailed Cavalleria's astute dramaturgy by bringing Turiddu and Alfio on stage at the climax for a pussyfooted stage combat. Laganà did marshall an Easter procession wondrous in its prayer-card tackiness, suggesting that Santuzza had dropped acid for a Catholic guilt trip.

Conductor Andrea Licata, another Sicilian import, justified the air fare with a reading that was taut at the climaxes and spacious in repose, with the strings in particular inspired to loving plushy tone. Matters were not so happy on stage, where half the cast seemed to be suffering under a vocal mala pasqua curse. Elena Filipova's occluded tone suggested Ulrica rather than Nedda, while the startling timbres of Gegam Grigorian's Canio didn't start to flow until "No! Pagliaccio non son." Antonio Salvadori was game if grainy as both Tonio and Alfio. Armando Ariostini was the competent Silvio, though his Joe Average portrayal lacked the rough trade sensuality that you want from the guy who gets to sing the show's sexiest music. In a staging which largely left the singers to their own devices, the antic Dean Anthony nearly stole the show as a tum-bling, leaping, prestidigitating Beppe.

Similarly throwing a small role into high relief, Susan Shafer's canny characterization of Mamma Lucia acted circles around the rudimen-tary histrionics of the rest of the cast. Paul Lyon made a promising start as Turiddu, but his bright-tight tenor never opened up. You wanted squillo. You wanted desperation.

Finally Ghena Dimitrova arrived to prove that not a thing is wrong with the Lyric's acoustics. For the first time all afternoon open tone flowed freely in insightfully molded phrases. Santuzza lies com-fortably for Dimitrova, allows her to deploy that baleful chest voice to hair-raising effect, and doesn't tax a stage persona that has always been, frankly, a bit glamour-challenged. 

--Loge Lizard
NEW YORK - The Met’s losing streak of unfortunate new productions continues unchecked. Seeking to replace the notorious Francesca Zambello production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the Met has ended up with one that is much worse. At least Francesca Zambello made noticeable, if heavy-handed, attempts to establish atmosphere, develop characters, create tension, and tell a story through stage action. The new production eschews these theatrical niceties and is empty in every sense possible. Nothing was done to establish or develop the characters. There was no attention to movement, gesture or blocking save for clumsy entrances and exits. The sets, ranging from decorous Gothic Revival interiors to a misplaced rock-climbing wall contributed little to the mood.  Finally, a complete absence of furniture ensured that the singers spent their climactic moments plopped down on the floor.  The Lammermoors were clearly doomed because their castle had lousy feng shui.

A great Lucia could have salvaged the inert production, but Ruth Ann Swenson did not do so on opening night. Her singing was uncharacteristically cautious and insecure. Poor taste or technical problems led her to insert irritating pauses before every high note. While her Lucia was clearly troubled and distressed, the portrayal was only intermittently moving. The director sabotaged her mad scene by having her behave as if she were tripping on peyote. In addition, there was no audience of horrified wedding guests to draw us into Lucia’s plight; the director had banished them in favor of that inescapable rock wall.

The tumultuous ovation for Ramon Vargas as Edgardo was well deserved as he exceeded the high ex-pectations set by his performance in last season’s Cenerentola. His singing was technically secure, emotionally intense, and deeply moving. He even sang the final scene in key. He is not yet an accomplished actor, but perhaps one day he will be fortunate enough to work with a skilled director who will help him transcend his current limitations. 

Alistair Miles had little to offer in the thankless role of Raimondo. As Enrico, Roberto Frontali spent most of the time pushing people around on stage, making his character’s villainy comical rather than convincing. He seemed to have the notes and technique for the role, as well as some appreciation of the requisite style; nonetheless he left a very bland impression. Jane Shaulis, portraying the servant Alisa, gave one of the more vulgar performances in recent memory. Bellowing away like Katisha in a provincial Mikado, she drowned out chorus, orchestra at the end of Act II — too bad she was silent during the many long scene changes!

Many in the audience were displeased with Carlo Rizzi’s conducting, finding his tempo choices odd and his attempts at expressiveness poorly coordinated and overdone. I was rather more approving, perhaps because I was intensely grateful that it was not Edoardo Müller in the pit. Mr. Rizzi was involved in the music and the performance, accommodated his singers, and had the orchestra playing with a beautiful line and nuance. There was some miscoordination with the chorus, but the Met chorus is a lost cause nowadays anyway. How will they manage Moses und Aron without bringing in ringers?

Franca Squarciapino supplied lavish costumes. Why, however, did Lucia have to wear the same dress for Act I and the first half of Act II? Had the rest of her clothes been sold along with all the furniture? Vinicio Cheli lit most of the performance in such an unremitting blackness that it was surprising that the cast could navigate the stage without flashlights. The opening night audience booed the production team fervently. At this point booing bad new productions at the Met is activity much like complaining about the cold weather in winter: We get to do it frequently and it is somewhat therapeutic, but alas, it produces no tangible results.

 — Dawn Fatale
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