|Apotheosis Opera--cast of Tannhäuser (photo by Abel Sandman)|
In spite of the death of New York City Opera and the slow decline of The Metropolitan Opera, we are not concerned about the future of opera in New York. The slack is being picked up by small adventuresome opera companies led by the next generation of impresarios producing operas with roles taken by gifted young artists. Over time, new forms will evolve that will suit the next generation of opera goers.
There is a highly promising young conductor at the helm of the newly formed Apotheosis Opera, yet a student in the Master of Music Program in Orchestral Conducting at Mannes College the New School for Music. His name is Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz and you will be hearing more about him without a doubt.
With a great deal of help, he managed to stage Wagner's mythic/spiritual opera Tannhäuser and to lead his orchestra through their paces with all the grandeur and sensitivity required by the composer. The overture opens with a brass chorale, joined by the lower strings and swelling to the skies with the entry of the upper strings. Such attention to dynamics and balance were well handled for the duration of the opera.
But....big but....Mr. Jaroszewicz took it upon himself to do the staging and there were some lapses that might have been avoided had he shared the duties. Perhaps choreographer Maayan Voss de Bettancourt must share the responsibility for these lapses of judgment.
In the opening scene while Tannhäuser and Venus are sharing an intimate moment in the Venusberg, Bacchantes are performing (simulated) lewd acts. In our opinion, followers of the Goddess of Love do not need to demonstrate licentiousness. We do not consider ourself to be a prude but we do not want to watch intercourse (anal or otherwise) onstage any more than we appreciated Scarpia appearing to be fellated onstage at the Met's current iteration of Tosca. Indeed, the chorus appeared as uncomfortable as the audience. Shocking people is a meretricious choice at the opera.
Also, there were some silly moments when, in Act II, Elisabeth and our eponymous hero are reunited. They do a few twirly quasi-ballroom dance steps that resulted in much tittering among the audience members. A good director might have reined in these two most obvious lapses of judgment.
A greater lapse was the decision to perform Wagner's masterpiece in English. Wagner was so invested in the text that he wrote the libretto himself. Each phrase rises and falls in rhythm with the music--a perfect partnership. The German language is special in its sentence structure with the verbs occurring at the end. Even the best translator could not form a translation to work with the vocal line.
But the English translation used here, by Natalia MacFarran, was deplorable, appearing to come out of the King James Version of the Bible. It never roseth but continually falleth. It was almost as unreadable as it was unsingable. We ask, why torture the singers with mouthfuls of unsingable syllables when you are providing titles? How much better to have performed the work in its original German with some easy to read titles!
That being said, we credit the singers for their fine diction. Each one rose to the challenge and were almost always understandable. Tenor Nicholas Simpson was a full-throated hero who carried the role from beginning to end without strain. As the devout Elisabeth, soprano Amber Smoke made a fine vocal showing, hampered only by a most unbecoming contemporary dress and pumps. Mezzo-soprano Jodi Karem inhabited her role with seductive tone and movements. Her costume was very appropriate.
As Elisabeth's uncle Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, bass John Dominick III held the stage with commanding authority. We could definitely see him as a fine Sarastro.
Wolfram von Eschenbach was sung by Jacob Lassetter and we were most disappointed in the last act by his "O du mein holder abendstern"; we believe the English translation was partly to blame and we would be happy to re-evaluate his performance in the future if he sings it in German.
As Walther von der Vogelweide, tenor Walker J. Jackson demonstrated a fine sweet tone and also created a character with a touch of humor that distinguished him from the other nobles. Bass Hans Tashjian sang the role of Biterolf (the combative noble who attacks the hero) while Joseph Beckwith sang the part of Reinmar von Zweter and Ethan Fran took the part of Heinrich der Schreiber.
Soprano Ginny Weant, a graduate student at Mannes, did a fine job as a young shepherd. The chorus was excellent as well. They overdid their shocked reaction to Tannhäuser's praise of Venus, but that was not as egregious as the directorial choices mentioned earlier.
Set design by Galen Kirkpatrick and Celine Schmidt was minimalist but the uncredited lighting design was most effective in demonstrating changes of mood by altering the color wash on the rear backdrop. Costume Design by Ned Christensen and Eliyana Abraham was likewise minimalist with mere hints of the medieval brought to street attire. None of this was distressing and could have worked well if the language and titles had not been so distracting.
We feel ourself to be in an awkward place because the stated goal of this company is to present operas in English. We are in strong disagreement with this goal, one that has been discredited since the advent of titles. As far as we know, only the Opera Theater of St. Louis (thank you Spencer Viator) and the English National Opera hews to this outmoded line. But the English pronounce "Beauchamp" as "beechum" and pronounce "pasta" in a way we wouldn't even recognize. So, there's that!
We wish to hear what the composer and librettist intended, not a bastardization of it. There are plenty of operas written in English one might present without trashing those written in other languages.
So...we wish Mr. Jaroszewicz the best of luck with his promising conducting career while hoping he will reconsider the mission of his company and also consider working with a skilled director.
In closing we just wanted to give some props to the uncredited harpist who accompanied all the songs and to the fine oboist (Beatriz Ramirez-Belt) whose solo we loved.
(c) meche kroop