Monday, May 14, 2012
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Asking people if they like 20th c. opera generally leads to a discussion attempting to define opera. A recent article in the New York Times led to the conclusion that opera is musically driven whereas a "musical" (as seen on Broadway) is driven by story or libretto. We ourselves cannot put quite as fine a point on it. Sometimes we think that 20th c. opera is that which does not entertain and the "musical" as one that does! Sometimes the distinction comes from the venue. Opera is seen in an opera house; musicals are seen in Broadway theaters or armories or warehouses. A case could be made that operas are not electronically enhanced whereas musicals are. Some say that "real" operas have no spoken dialogue. None of these distinctions hold water in every case.
Seeing Ragtime at the Manhattan School of Music is a case in point. E. L. Doctorow wrote the novel from which Terrence McNally wrote the book. Stephen Flaherty wrote the music and Lynn Ahrens wrote the lyrics. The music is lyrical, the characters memorable and the story riveting. Characters representing three strata of society are thrown together-- Afro-Americans, European immigrants and a well-to-do Caucasian family. The only thing preventing this superb production, directed by Carolyn Marlow, from being perceived as an opera was the use of microphones; the auditorium is not huge and the voices were grand. We were particularly impressed by the "Tateh" of Daniel Schwait (who moved easily from the role of desperate immigrant into the role of the successful film director, amazed by his own success) and the liberal-minded "Mother" of Chelsea Nectow who took in an unwed mother and her baby. Was this just too "entertaining" to be considered an opera? I think Puccini might have disagreed!
THE MAKROPULOS CASE
On the other hand, Leoš Janácek's The Makropulos Case at the Met offered dense music, non-lyrical vocal lines, very little story and not a single character with whom one could identify or about whom one could care. In spite of a one-dimensional performance by Karita Mattila that garnered huge applause, some fine singing by Richard Leech and Alan Oke and some fine conducting by Jiři Belohlávek the evening seemed tedious and unending. Nearly a dozen of my opera-loving friends agreed and complained about the dearth of enjoyable operas written post-Strauss. Too much declamation and no lyricism!
BILLY BUDD AT THE MET
On the other hand, a fine time could be had at the Met's production of Billy Budd. Melville's story is as relevant today as ever and E.M. Forster wrote a tense libretto with Eric Crozier. One must give due credit to the stunning multilevel set and fine costumes of William Dudley in this 1978 John Dexter production, may it never be replaced! Here we have a moral issue, a history lesson and a seemingly accurate representation of life on a sailing ship during wartime in the late 18th c. Although we cannot claim to "understand" Benjamin Britten's musical idiom we could certainly understand the characters and the stresses of being on a warship when the fear of mutiny was equal to the fear of the enemy.
The arias, rare as they were, made sense within the context of the story. Tenor John Daszak was always audible as the conflicted Captain as was baritone Dwayne Croft as Mr. Redburn and bass baritone John Cheek as Dansker. Sadly, one cannot say the same for the baritone of Nathan Gunn whose voice was too small to be consistently heard over the enormous orchestral force conducted by David Robertson. Bass James Morris was impressive as Claggart, the villain of the piece, and delivered a fine soliloquy the lower notes of which unfortunately disappeared.
There were so many men on board the ship doing different jobs it was not always possible to recognize all the talent from the balcony. But we did recognize Elliot Madore in a small but clear-voiced role as his baritone soared above the orchestra. As ever, the Met chorus assumed a most important role.
TRAVELERS at The Little Opera Theatre of NY
As our final entry in a week of 20th c. opera, we enjoyed a double bill of one act operas by the British composer Gustav Holst, best known for his symphonic work The Planets. Astute conductor Richard Cordova led his dozen musicians through some interesting orchestration. Director Philip Schneidman brought a great deal of imagination to his staging of both the opening comedy The Wandering Scholar and the following Savitri.
The Wandering Scholar was written in 1930 and the reduced orchestration effected by Benjamin Britten and Holst's daughter Imogen. The amusing libretto was written by Clifford Bax, based on a book by Helen Waddell, but it has the feeling of Chaucer about it, not to mention some commedia del'arte. We particularly enjoyed the use of rhymes. With delight we watched the interaction between a woman, her unsuspecting husband, a lustful priest and a starving scholar. We wait to see who will get the pork stew and the wine and the sexual favors!
In the performance we saw, soprano Maria Alu was captivating as the wife and sang with fine technique. Her farmer husband was equally well sung by baritone Ron Loyd and Jeffrey Tucker used his generous bass and generous girth to create a very funny priest. Tenor Benjamin Robinson was delightfully convincing as the starving scholar who connives his way into the farmer's kitchen and interrupts the sexual dalliance.
Between the two operas, we were treated to some fine choral singing of "Hymn of the Travellers". This was followed by the 1908 Savitri, in which Holst has apparently translated from Sanskrit an episode from The Mahabharata in which a wife persuades Death to allow her husband to come back to life. The dialog is nothing if not conversational and would have benefited by the presence of titles. Although the vocal lines are not quite lyrical, they were beautifully sung and acted by mezzo Toby Newman and bass-baritone Michael Scarcelle, but not so beautifully sung by tenor Rufus Müller who struggled with his upper register. We found ourselves listening more to the unusual orchestration and found particular delight in Ms. Newman's voice playing with the double bass. We were also quite taken with the harp, played by a superb Lynette Wardle.
The Little Opera Theatre of NY is not little by its ambition and fulfills one of the most important functions of chamber opera--bringing rarely heard works onstage. Bravi tutti!
(c) meche kroop