01 Aug 2009
‘Opera Noir’ Entertains at Santa Fe
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
Santa Fe Opera has made it happen with William Wyler’s 1940 motion picture, The Letter based on Somerset Maugham’s 1920s short story and play, and now an opera. It may well be the sleeper of the Santa Fe season, unusual for a newly commissioned opera.
Within a dark toned sparsely furnished residential stage set, four collapsing palm trees grimly lowering in the background of a hot and smelly Malay rubber plantation house, a bored housewife is carrying on a torrid affair with a local dandy, her often absent and somewhat dull husband unaware. In the Wyler movie, the main feature of which is Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie the erring wife, moments after the show opens we hear gunfire as her lover Geoff Hammond staggers across the verandah, Leslie emptying her six-shooter into him in a jealous rage. Bette Davis did it with fervor, and believe me, Santa Fe’s soprano Patricia Racette does the deed with equal vehemence. We were off to a strong start, and the intensity rarely lets up over the 100-minute opera.
Anthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie) and James Maddalena (Howard Joyce)
The Santa Fe team, led by composer Paul Moravec with librettist Terry Teachout, musical director Patrick Summers and stage director Jonathan Kent, took a chance patterning their new opera so closely on the ‘noir’ qualities of old movies, but that was exactly the tone they wanted to establish for this sordid little story, and they got it right. Even more successful is the musical score by Paul Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University. Worry not, this is no academician’s tepid exercise — it’s a rip-snorting adventure in high-class movie music with the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Eric Korngold and Max Steiner hovering in the background. Moravec’s music is fluent and beautifully orchestrated. The tonal score is through-composed, no pauses for arias or set pieces aside from brief moments, with a good sense of storytelling and excitement resulting.
It turns out Moravec, in his first opera, is a wise and able theatre composer who knows to keep his orchestra subdued for key passages of exposition and musical dialogue, but can unleash his violins and woodwinds in romantic mood music to evoke the sweeping “love me forever passages” of Leslie and Geoff’s affair. Don’t laugh, but when it comes to writing music and vocal lines that can narrate and sustain mood, Moravec impressed me as having it all over the cognoscenti’s current darlings, Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov, also lately heard in new works at Santa Fe. Sometimes it feels good just to get down to storytelling without trying to make musical history.James Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Mika Shigematsu (A Chinese Woman) and Rodell Rosel (Ong Chi Seng)
Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Leslie has been caught out not only in her affair with Goeff, but his murder as well. Once she discovered Geoff was through with her, preferring his new Chinese mistress, Leslie popped him off, a woman scorned. But that’s not all: her husband Robert has to come up with a lot of cash to buy back a letter Leslie stupidly wrote to Geoff inviting him over the night she shot him, a piece of evidence that would convict the lady. The letter fell into the hands of Geoff’s mistress, and now the Chinese woman wants to cash in. Of course it will ruin husband Robert Crosbie, played and sung with great effectiveness by Anthony Michaels-Moore, using his life’s savings to redeem his adulteress wife. Sticky, eh?
Roger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond)
Coming to the rescue is Howard Joyce, Robert’s lawyer friend, who manages to buy and repress the letter, and convince a Singapore British jury to let Leslie off, claiming she was the victim of Geoff’s violent attempt to rape her. The one-act opera ends in a big mess, romance gone, careers compromised, and then in a coupe-de-theatre, Leslie takes matters into her own hands and resolves her dilemma. I’ll not reveal the quick denouement.
Ms. Racette, Michaels-Moore, James Maddalena as the lawyer, and assorted secondary role singers could not have been any better. Roger Honeywell, Rodell Rosel and Keith Jameson, all tenors, played key parts in the show’s success, with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers wonderfully effective in their central role. Patricia Racette is a marvel; her full lyric soprano voice is in solid shape, used with skill and much dramatic effect. She has an expressive face, and is an actor of the first order. It was a pleasure to encounter her strengths in this prima donna role. For now, she owns the part. Others will soon want to.
The Letter may to some degree be a work in progress; it seems fairly well finished, if a few minutes too long. The intensity of the Maupassant-esque plotting with all its ironies is well maintained, with good rhythm and tempo, rhetorically and musically. But in a departure from Maugham and Wyler, Morevec added a short scene in which the Chinese woman (the fine Japanese mezzo Mika Shigematsu), comes to the lawyer to deliver the letter and collect her cash. Unfortunately she is given not only a voice in the proceedings with a short aria, but brings up issues that only obfuscate and delay. I hope the authors will rethink that scene. Much effect was gained by Wyler in keeping his mysterious Chinese woman quiet — a strong presence but generalized. There can be too many ‘specifics,’ sometimes in dramatic plotting, and The Letter has a few. In the main it is unusually engaging, well-paced entertainment, handsomely performed.
J. A. Van Sant ©2009