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Carter Scott as Turandot (Photo by Ellen Appel courtesy of Fort Worth Opera)
09 Jun 2008

Opera with a human heart

When the Ringling Brothers folded their tents, opera took over. Aïda with elephants, and Walküre with real horses.

FWOpera Festival

Above: Carter Scott as Turandot

All photos Ellen Appel/Fort Worth Opera


Supernumeraries infiltrated the chorus, and sets and costumes went beyond the most extravagant excesses of Hollywood. Eat your heart out, Cecil B. DeMille! Opera — growing in popularity by the season — became the opium of the masses, and directors vied with each other in productions that took the breath away. Forget the plot and the music written for it; the show was the thing!

Texas’ 62-year-old Fort Worth Opera — it’s a senior among American companies — is out to restore a proper balance, and the four productions currently on stage there in the FWO’s second summer festival stress that this is no longer just another regional company, but an enterprise that has defined for itself a special identity through its commitment to fidelity, to composers’ intentions, to perceptive direction and a finely honed sense of what it is that makes opera both grand and great. The Turandot that opened the festival on May 24 made all this clear. For those who wanted awe, it was there in the staging designed by Peter Graves and Allen Charles Klein for Opera Cleveland. However, it was Daniel Pelzig’s sensitive direction that made this refreshingly fascinating Puccini.

1212072280_dongwon_shin_as_.pngDongwon Shin as Calaf
Turandot is a troubling tale. The eponymous heroine isn’t the girl next door; she’s downright nasty, a trait of character underscored by the ease with which she condones the murder of sweet and innocent Liú, the one genuinely good character in the story. In most productions Turandot is a simplified study in frigidity — an ice sculpture imperially above the masses on stage with half of Beijing’s Imperial City on her head and shoulders. Pelzig made her mobile and an agitated presence in her own story. The prehistory of abuse to a female ancestor became a document of modern feminism as she stood next to Liu’ in the younger woman’s hour of sacrifice. And Carter Scott, who stepped in for an ailing Elizabeth Bennett, has the power, passion and agility of voice to make Turandot a portrait of deeply internalized suffering. (The goodness of Liú, sung with youthful devotion by Sandra Lopez, even lost some of its appeal through this meaningful feminization of the Princess.)

Given the paucity of tremendous tenors today it is astonishing that one has to go to Fort Worth to discover Korean-born Dongwon Shin, whose throbbing “Nessun dorma” would leave the citizens of any city willing to surrender a night of sleep to hear the greatest hit in the opera sung with his ardor. Stephen Dubberly had the massive FWO Chorus making music — not merely noise, and FWO music director Joseph Illick extracted playing from the Fort Worth Symphony that added to the impact of a Turandot that one had hoped one day to hear.

Anthony Dean Griffey, a major success of the season at the Met as Britten’s Peter Grimes, has made Lennie, the retarded central figure of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men a signature role, and it’s wonderful that audiences can expect the young American tenor to sing this role for decades to come.

1212522122_anthony_dean_gri.pngAnthony Dean Griffey as Lennie
Even Griffey’s considerable bulk contributes to his success as Lennie, for he seems at first blush just another overweight kid. But watch his fingers as he seeks solace in “something soft.” Keep an eye on his smile and the little skip that he executes from time to time and you’ll swear that you have a genuine case of arrested mental development in front of you. Griffey makes Lennie loveable and he makes his relationship with his companion George — both migrant workers from the Great Depression — meaningful and beautiful.

George could hardly be better sung than he was by Canadian baritone George Addis, another of astonishing FWO artists to watch for elsewhere. Brandi Icard, true, was one dimensional as Curley’s love-starved wife, while Matt Morgan made Curley the quintessential American macho male, recalling Annie Proulx’ pronouncement that “men are the major victims of American masculinity.”

1212025626_phillip_addis_as.pngPhillip Addis as George, Stephen West as Candy, and Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie

The Utah Opera production — sets and costumes by, respectively, Vicki Davis and Susan Memmott-Allred — recalled Grant Wood, and Richard Kagey’s direction upheld the view that this 1971 score is Floyd’s finest work. Illick was again an impressive conductor, especially in the orchestral interludes that put Floyd on a level with the Anton Webern of Wozzeck.

1211550217_elizabeth_futral.pngElizabeth Futral as Lucia
Despite it’s greatest “hits” — the sextet and the Mad Scene — the bel canto melodrama of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammemoor is not everyone’s tankard of ale. A less-than-great performance is uncomfortably close to parody, and its glaring rejection of traditional family values is wasted on those interested only in coloratura acrobatics. How different, however, the FWO Lucia directed by David Gately and conducted by Steven White!

Lucia has rarely had a better interpreter than Elizabeth Futral, cast by the FWO in the title role. She is one of the loveliest singers of her generation, and she makes bel canto seem her mother tongue. She is wonderfully vulnerable — even when one wishes she would take a knife to Brother Enrico. Futral sang the Mad Scene with delicate sensitivity, never reveling that that’s only catsup and not blood on her hands and gown, Yet this show was almost stolen from her by youthful and up-coming tenor Stephen Costello as losing lover Edgardo, a role he has already sung at the Met. In his cemetery lament in the final scene of the opera Costello, lean and handsome at a mere 28, sang his way into this music with a richness of tone, accuracy and articulation that had the audience on its feet, suggesting that the next great tenor is now — and in Fort Worth.

1211647706_elizabeth_futral.pngElizabeth Futral as Lucia and Stephen Costello as Edgardo

The Cincinnati Opera production is traditional and true to the period and it gained color through lavish costumes from near-by Dallas. The chorus seemed to have had one — or two — too many in the orgiastic post-wedding revelry.

1211914492_alissa_anderson%2C.pngAlissa Anderson, Elizabeth Futral, Allison Whetsel and Pamela Grayson

Homosexuality might have come a long way since the day that it was — said Oscar Wilde — “the love that dare not speak its name” to — as someone quipped in the 70s — the love that won’t shut up. Nonetheless, the composition of an AIDS opera is a task far removed from dashing off another Bohème or Butterfly.

1210776981_ava_pine_as_ange.pngPrior’s (David Adam Moore) prophetic visions culminate in the appearance of an imposing and beautiful Angel (Ava Pine) who crashes through the roof of his apartment and proclaims, “The Great Work begins.”
That alone, however, makes Peter Eötvös’ opera based on Tony Kushner’s Angels in America all the more remarkable — and admirable, and the choice of the work to round out the FWO’s second festival season is to be praised as an act of bravery and bravura. This obviously begs the question about the quality of the opera, which received its first full staging during the festival in Fort Worth’s 500-seat Scott Theater in the city’s museum district. (The other three operas were staged in the city’s still new downtown Bass Performance Hall.) In shaving Angels down from a seven-hour stage work to an opera of a mere two hours Mari Mezei has made a noble attempt to transfer the drama — and its discomforting subject matter — to another medium.

1210777443_janice_hall_as_h.pngHannah (Janice Hall) helps Prior (David Adam Moore) who is sick with AIDS

Hungarian-born Eötvös, a major European modernist in the wake of the Second Viennese School, has written much music for the opera that is of ethereal beauty and impressive in technique. (Much of it is delivered by musicians screened on either side of the stage.) Yet the result seems a work in which less is much less; too much has been lost in transition. An immense amount of detail obscures the major issues of Kushner’s play.

With the efforts of a brilliant creative team — conductor Christopher Larkin, director David Gately, designers Peter Nigrini and Claudia Stephens — made Angels a work decidedly worth seeing. And the cast, headed by veteran soprano Janice Hall and Erin Elizabeth Smith, delivered lines ranging from speaking to Sprechstimme to singing with amazing aplomb.

1210777553_kelly_anderson_a.pngLeft to Right: Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson) and Joe Pitt (Craig Verm) talk politics

Kelly Anderson was a brilliantly butch Roy Cohn (but who remembers today who that was?), and studio artist Ave Pine was vocally stunning as the major angel who flew about on wires while singing famously. In all probability Angels will not be done again in this country in a long, long time, and one is grateful to FWO general director Darren K. Woods for his courage in bringing it to the festival.

A bonus of the ’08 season was the inclusion in the season of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, his song cycle for soprano, clarinet and piano. The performance by Gina Browning, virtuoso clarinetist Jonathan Jones and Illick at the piano was part of More Life: The Art & Science of AIDS, a series of concurrent events involving a multitude of Fort Worth community organizations designed to focus attention on the AIDS epidemic.

On stage in Fort Worth in 2009 are Carmen, Cinderella and Dead Man Walking. The season from 25 April through June 10 is followed immediately by the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Festival. Visit

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