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Performances

Photo: Karen Almond
05 Nov 2015

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

A review by Ian MacKenzie

Above photo by Karen Almond

 

To get her pet opera produced, Arden has come back to her hometown where the American Opera, run by impressaria Winnie Flato (Federica von Stade), is based. Winnie’s husband runs the local pro football team and makes enough money to indulge his wife’s passion for opera. The team is playing across town in the Super Bowl the night “Rosa Dolorosa” opens. Onstage with Arden is a fiercely ambitious young Eastern European soprano, Tatyana Bakst (Ailyn Perez), who is eager to supplant the veteran diva. There are romantic subplots between Arden and her former high school sweetheart (Nathan Gunn), and between the cute young stage manager (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and the conductor (Kevin Burdette). In addition, there is a barihunk intent on revealing his torso onstage and a witty tenor.

As you can see from this description, there’s a lot going on in Great Scott. Master playwright Terrence McNally has created characters that are much fully drawn than is usual in opera. The libretto is witty, warm-hearted and eloquent.

Jake Heggie’s score for Great Scott raises all sorts of questions. It’s a meta-operatic work, an opera about the making of an operatic production filled with pastiche of bel canto composers plus a dollop of Richard Strauss. Heggie’s virtue is his talent for writing melodies for the voice in an era in which many operatic composters think of the human voice as just another instrument in the orchestra and often not the most important one. No wonder singers love his music. However, the score for Great Scott is so easy on the ear that, apart from the pseudo Rossini, the sweet, melodic music often sounds like old-fashioned Broadway. Its best moments, like the rapturous quartet toward the end, echoing the trio from Der Rosenkavalier, tend to sound like someone else. There were times when I thought the opera would be better if Heggie had gone more in the direction of Broadway. The echoes of Rossini in Cy Coleman’s brilliant score for On the Twentieth Century are wittier than Heggie’s parodies. There’s nothing wrong with musicals combining Broadway and opera – think of Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, Regina or The Most Happy Fella. McNally’s libretto does this masterfully. Heggie’s music isn’t quite in either camp. He wants the music to be approachable, but is it distinctive?

On opening night, Great Scott ran for nearly three and a half hours. Here is a case where less would be more. The longish overture is weak and could easily be cut and there’s too much operatic parody. The joke wears a bit thin after a while. An edited version of Great Scott focusing more on the backstage story with less faux Rossini would be far more potent.

The premiere production couldn’t have had a better cast. Great Scott calls for singers with excellent technique and personal charisma. This cast had both. It’s difficult to single out any of the leads for particular praise. Joyce DiDonato sang like an angel but acted equally well as a star in midlife crisis. Federica von Stade still has a beautiful voice and made Winnie into a lovable character. Ailyn Perez has certainly met sopranos like Tatyana Bakst and gives a spot-on performance as an embodiment of diva ambition. Her star turn is a bizarre version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl that almost steals the show. Anthony Roth Costanzo, is totally winning as Roane, the stage manager who can’t decide whether he is a realist or a romantic. Costanzo also gets a show stopping number in which he confesses to his non-operatic musical preferences. He can dance too! As he always does, veteran director Jack O’Brien gives the work both warmth and pizzazz. Opera never gets enough rehearsal. I wish I had seen the last performance instead of the first. I’m sure the production will settle in even more over time.

I doubt that Great Scott will withstand the test of time. I couldn’t help thinking of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage, another comic opera filled with pastiche that doesn’t have a firm enough musical profile. Great Scott is thoroughly enjoyable but not great.

Ian MacKenzie

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