Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

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]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

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.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

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.

San Diego Opera presents an excellent Don Giovanni

On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.

Tosca at Chicago Lyric

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.

Henri Dutilleux: Correspondances

Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.

LA Opera Revives The Ghosts of Versailles

In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned composer John Corigliano to write an opera celebrating the company’s one-hundredth anniversary. It was to be ready in 1983.

La Traviata, ENO

English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).

Idomeneo in Lyon

You might believe you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera

I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking — and talking — about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations.

Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva

Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.

Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse

Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.

Arizona Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Arizona Opera presented Eugene Onegin during and 1999-2000 season and again on February 1 of this year as part of the 2014-2015 season. In this country Onegin is not a crowd pleaser like La Bohème or Carmen, but its story is believable and its music melodic and memorable. Just hum the beginning of the “Polonaise” and your friends will know the music, if not where it comes from.

Ernst Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall in Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. Matthias Goerne has called Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch the Winterreise of the 20th century. Boesch and Vignoles showed how Krenek’s Reisebuch is a journey of discovery into identity at an era of extreme social change. It is a parable, indeed, of modern times.

Anna Bolena at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new Anna Bolena, a production shared with Minnesota Opera, features a distinguished cast including several notable premieres.

San Diego Celebrates 50th Year with La Bohème

On Tuesday January 27, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. It is the opera with which the company opened in 1965 and a work that the company has faithfully performed every five years since then.

English Pocket Opera Company: Verdi’s Macbeth

Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.

Katia Kabanova in Toulon

Káťa Kabanová is, they say, Janáček's first mature opera — it comes a mere 20 years after his masterpiece, Jenůfa.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

 Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts.  HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.
17 Mar 2008

Heggie faces family dilemma in new work

Do dysfunctional families outnumber the ones that move through life untroubled, or is it — to paraphrase Tolstoy — that every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way and thus of greater interest to writers and composers?

Jake Heggie: Last Acts
Houston Grand Opera

Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.

 

Since Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were at their Attic — and antic — best families in a fix have been a major source of raw material for creative artists. Thus it’s easy to understand Jake Heggie’s fascination with the Mitchells — mother “Maddy,” an ageing actress, her gay son Charlie and daughter Bea, wife of a wayward husband, the subject of “Last Acts,” a chamber opera premiered by the Houston Grand Opera on February 29.

The Mitchells are something of a special case, for not only are they a mess as a group, but individually as well. “Maddy” has concealed her husband’s suicide from her estranged children. Charlie, the younger, watches his partner die of AIDS, while Bea — her kids already in college — laments her husband’s philandering. Heggie found the Mitchells — the deceased husband, although absent from the work, is still part of the family — in “Christmas Letters,” a 2001 play by his frequent librettist Terrence McNally that was given a single reading at a New York AIDS benefit. Smitten by the story, the composer asked Gene Scheer to fashion a libretto from McNally’s text.

When Heggie is on stage there’s no “Capriccio”-style clamor — “prima la musica e poi le parole” — about words versus music. He’s a setter of words, a composer first of songs and then of operas and musical scenes, in which the text comes first. The new score is smooth and flows without huge ups and downs; an occasional nudge of dissonance might have made listeners more aware of the finely-wrought music they are hearing. Heggie makes it too easy for the audience, drawing them into the story with his refined sense of theater and allowing them to overlook the sophisticated music that he has written.

A young composer could not have wished for better on-the-job training than Heggie got when he joined the press wing of the San Francisco Opera in 1994. Just out of college with a stack of early songs under his arm, he was immediately involved in the company’s 1994 world premiere of Conrad Susa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” It helped him hone the skills that led to the SFO commission — and premiere — of his “Dead Man Walking” in 2000. (It remains the most successful opera of the new century thus far.) And the star of the Susa cast was Frederica von Stade, who became Heggie’s friend, muse and mentor. Heggie pays homage to the legendary mezzo in “Last Acts,“ a two-hour study of the Mitchells’ woes.

Tailor-made for her, von Stade is in her element in “Last Acts,” performed on a largely bare stage with an ensemble of 11 instrumentalists on risers behind her. Cesar Galindo provided her with sumptuous gowns, and Brian Nason‘s lighting added to the effectiveness of shifting scenes. Von Stade relishes “Maddy” and she accounted for the success that the work was in the eyes — and ears — of the opening-night audience that packed the 1000-seat Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center. Indeed, if there is an inherent weakness in the work, it is in the undiminished vocal splendor and still ravishing beauty of the famous mezzo, for von Stade — now 62 — will never grow old. And although Heggie admits that he can see others in the role, “Last Acts” will survive probably only as long as von Stade is able to sing it, for the work is so uniquely hers.

In his HGO debut youthful baritone Keith Phares was a troubled Charlie, while Kristin Clayton was a trifle too matronly to be the daughter of ageless von Stade. “Last Acts” is more Broadway than Berlioz, and von Stade’s first-act “number” is the “hit” of the work. And while the opening act is somewhat bland, Heggie’s skill comes to the fore as the previously concealed truth about the suicide of husband/father is revealed in the second. In the well-balanced score each of the children has a major solo scene. Heggie writes “big” music, even when composing for chamber forces. “Last Acts” is lush and listenable, warm and warming; it’s accessible and affirmative in gesture. Although “Maddy,” affirming that it’s the truth that makes us free, concludes that everything “is going to be alright,” one must wonder whether Heggie — and Scheer — have not made things a bit too simple.

The audience is asked to accept that “Maddy” went on stage to put food on the table and shoes on little feet. No one asks whether she, convinced that “truth could only be touched by imagination,” was in the beginning the constant wife of which everyone dreams. Did she perhaps conceal too much in finding “a version of our lives that we could all live with?” Does “Last Acts” suggest that there is a [italics] truth, rather than the [italics]? Is this not rather a further “take” on life as a stage, in which fiction substitutes for fact? (Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Heggie’s father killed himself when his son was 10.)

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted from one piano; Heggie was at a second.

Commissioned by the HGO in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, “Last Acts” will be titled “Three Decembers” in future performances. Heggie has been commissioned to write a new work on “Moby-Dick” to open the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the new home of Dallas Opera, on April 30, 2010.

Wes Blomster

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):