13 Mar 2007
Native-American Drama at Opera Omaha
Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.
Rossini, employing the formulae of his day, could dash off a new work in a week or two; the collective responsible for “Wakonda” - composer Andrew Davis, librettist Yusef Komunyakaa, director Rhoda Levine and OC general director Joan Desens - began their brain storming in 2002. “Wakonda” was five years in the making.
Originally focused on the 1879 trial of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, the story changed into a “meditation” - to use Davis’ designation - on the court decision that first recognized the rights of Native Americans. (They were not granted citizenship until 1948.) In its many meetings the collective decided upon a family drama set in the present, heavy with the dreams - and nightmares - faced still today by Native Americans.
Standing Bear - now positioned among the chorus at stage rear - has become a reference point for two generations intent upon keeping “their feet on the path” while finding “a place beyond shame and sorrow.” And although Louisiana-born Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer prize winner noted for his writing on the Vietnam war and now a professor at Princeton, feels that he delivered a “straightforward narrative,” he also wanted to tell a story that goes “beyond history.”
A plethora of problems has found its way into the opera: the kids- even Native-American kids - playing “Cowboys and Indians” all want to be Cowboys, and there’s discrimination and alcoholism. Budding romance between a young Indian and white girl Laura leads an irate father to threaten violence. It’s more than can be handled comfortably in a two-hour work, and thus it’s not surprising that “Wakonda’s Dream” ends a bit up in the air. Davis and his colleagues might have done better to keep the focus on the trial that made Standing Bear a legend.
Davis’ creative concern with racism brought him early fame with his widely praised “Malcolm X” (1986) and “Amistad” (1997). Yet one understands his hesitation to compose yet another trial after the courtroom scene at the center of “Amistad.” The changed plot stresses the continuing dilemma of Native Americans, for whom “the past is one long death march to nowhere.”
Blue-collar Justin Labelle (Eugene Perry) dreams of a better life for his son Jason (William Ferguson). But in an alcoholic haze, confused by the spirit of the trickster Coyote, the father shoots - and kills - his son. It’s a tragic tale, and on the heels of this murder the consolation of the finale - even with the American Indian Dance Theater on stage for the ceremonial dance that returns Justin to his tribe - seems a facile resolution of the many problems involved.
Davis is a gifted craftsman and has done is utmost to tailor a score suited to the subject matter at hand. Indeed, in the first act he has perhaps gone too far in giving primacy to words over music, for here he largely restricts himself to the illustration of narrative. One anticipates - but waits in vain - for an outburst of melody in an aria or duet.
The score is more engaging in the conflicts and confrontations of the second act - especially in the meeting between Jason and Standing Bear that is at the heart of the story. Davis has written music of particular strength and beauty for the chorus that sits with immobile dignity in an arc at the back of the stage throughout the opera.
He faced a major challenge in writing a score “that lets the audience in,” that brings emotional weight to the experience of the story by causing the listener to identify with the characters on stage. The opera opens with a “soundscape,” recorded sounds of Nebraska nature that fill the Orpheum before giving way to instrumental voices. Davis weaves jazz and folk motifs, along with Native-American hip-hop, into a score that keeps the listener alert. And Opera Omaha has assembled a strong cast for the staging. In addition to Perry and Ferguson and Ricker, Phyllis Pancella is a lovingly concerned wife and mother, while Arnold Rawls portrays a regal Standing Bear. Kids Lilly Nunn and Jonah Davis excel as central figures in childhood.
Peter Harrison designed a single set that evokes an inner landscape of desolation. Costumes were by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Steward Robertson conducted an enlarged chamber ensemble drawn from the Omaha Symphony.
Opera Omaha made the work the center piece of a month-long festival of outreach events designed to provide the community with background on this chapter of early Nebraska history. This, in turn, no doubt accounted in part for the many Native Americans in the opening-night audience.
“Wakonda’s Dream” joins such earlier operatic “meditations” on the fate of America’s natives David Carlson’s “Dreamkeepers” (Utah Opera, 1996) and Henry Mollicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City Lyric Opera, 1998) as an admirable endeavor to focus attention on a dreadful heritage. Whether it moves beyond Omaha remains to be seen. Before the March 7 premiere Rufus White, a spiritual leader of the Omaha Nation, blessed the cast of the production.