We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

MORTE (more or less)


Jorell Williams, Melissa Harvey, Maestro Neal Goren, Laurie Rubin, and Joshua Dennis

In the first scene of Nadia Boulanger's only opera La Ville Morte, one of the characters saw something he couldn't describe. That is exactly how we feel about the performance of said opera last night at The NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. As regular readers already know, we approach every opera  without reading advance materials. We have our very own criterion; let the work speak for itself. We would be surprised to find anyone in the decent sized audience who could have understood what happened onstage.

Upon returning home, we consulted Wikipedia (faut de mieux). "The story follows the lives and loves of an archeologist, Léonard, his sister Hebé, Alexandre, a colleague, and his wife Anne, amidst the ruins of Mycenae." 

It took us awhile to figure out how the characters were related. Hebé (performed by the fine soprano Melissa Harvey seems to have an affectionate relationship with Anne (played by the equally fine mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin). Two men arrive separately. One is the fine tenor Joshua Dennis (whom we have written about many times since he launched his career at the Santa Fe Opera), and the other is baritone Jorell Williams (whom we have also written about many times in the past dozen years).  The relationships described in Wikipedia took some time to figure out.

The libretto was based on a play written by Gabriele D'Annunzio. The story is as obscure as that of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and if you are a fan of the Symbolist movement you may enjoy that sort of non-storytelling but we do not.

Still, Nadia Boulanger was a major star in the musical firmament, responsible for teaching many other composers, and this is the only opera she wrote. She wrote it with her mentor (and possibly lover) Raoul Pugno in the early years of the 20th c. but its performance was prevented by the outbreak of World War II. The score was lost and had to be reconstructed. Unfortunately, the orchestrator neglected to include a harp. Other than that we heard some really beautiful passages for the winds and something interesting going on in the string section of the chamber orchestra presided over by Maestro Neal Goren, so well remembered for his Gotham Chamber Opera. 

We recall spending many interesting evenings with Gotham Chamber Opera. Some we loved (Charpentier's Le descent d'Orphée aux enfers), Montsalvatge's El Gato con Botas, and a Martinú comedy called The Bridge) and a few we didn't relate to. We were quite disappointed when GCO folded and were particularly happy to witness Maestro Goren's conducting once more.

In sum, Dear Reader, the orchestral music was well worth hearing, even if it wasn't exactly what the composers wrote; we enjoyed hearing two male singers with whom we have a long history; we were pleased to be introduced to two female singers who were unknown to us. So, the evening was not a total loss. However, we and our two musician friends left puzzled and unsatisfied. That the work received significant applause (and was well received in Athens when performed by the Greek National Opera) did not make us any happier.

A word about the direction by Robin Guarino, whose interpretation of Haydn's Orlando Paladino we enjoyed about ten years ago--we think she did the best with a non-story and inscrutable characters whose lines were not those of real people. Andromache Chalfant's set comprised a rather bare room with a single chair, a room in the form of a box that was elevated and reached by a ladder and a metal staircase. In front of this at ground level were reams of white fabric meant to represent a few different elements. Also there was a table with gold artifacts, puzzling until we read in Wikipedia that the male characters were archaeologists. Jessica Drayton's projection design comprised some abstract motifs which added to the inscrutability. Candice Donnelly's costume design was nondescript.

© meche kroop

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