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!
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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