Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Great Scott! Skyrocketing bel canto in The Dallas Opera's world premiere of Jake Heggie's latest opera

Artists in the rehearsal room for Rosa Dolorosa in Great Scott
Maybe, just maybe, the art of bel canto singing can skyrocket in the context of contemporary opera. Great Scott, The Dallas Opera's formidable new commission of Terrence McNally's story and libretto, with music by Jake Heggie, certainly makes it possible.

In the manner of Rossini and others, Heggie employs bel canto composition in the service of a fictional never-performed long-lost opera score, for which fictional opera star Arden Scott is determined to make a success of during a triumphant return to her hometown. Her discovery of the 1835 work Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, by fictional composer Vittorio Bazzetti, makes for a fascinating story, one which centres around various corridors of American Opera (seemingly representative of American opera companies and the risks they face). In it, we get a peep at the behind-the-scenes chaos, its assortment of temperaments and the intricacies that drive artistic passion. Great Scott is amusing but not a comedy, its clever, sometimes indulgent and a tad poignant. It's also a work of geodesic-like interconnections, a confident work with its own uniqueness and, for its world premiere, a stellar cast gave it a remarkable outing.

In Act I, American Opera is rehearsing Bazzetti's work and Joyce DiDonato, for whom the role of as Arden Scott was created, sings to impress. While seemingly at play with her voice, DiDonato catapults the art of coloratura, singing with unbounded joy through highly expressive vocal shifts with rich textures and a fountain of effervescence. Doing so, she aims her sling-shot fun at ballsy co-star and diva-hungry Uzbekistani (or thereabouts) Tatyana Bakst, spectacularly sung and bubbly acted by Ailyn Pérez. If that's what opera singers are doing in rehearsal, an audience needs to hear more of that on the stage in modern opera. Even though it's trepidatiously employed for a fictional opera, Heggie seems to have opened the door for bel canto, giving it modernity like never before as part of contemporary storytelling.

Nathan Gunn and Joyce DiDonato
Much is riding on the success of American Opera's Rosa Dolorosa. It's a risky operatic venture that mimics the travails and excitement of risk-taking choices, much what could mimic The Dallas Opera's initiative in staging Great Scott.

Heggie's musical brew even seems to root the story in the geographic epicentre of the USA, gratefully writing an overture that begins with a sprawling sense of space and uncluttered beauty. Later, with rousing brassy Sousa-like pageantry, American football and patriotic fare is celebrated. It feels very much like it starts in Dallas for which conductor Patrick Summers demonstrated the music's strength with an overtly tempered ardour.

The bel canto premiere has to compete with Super Bowl on opening night and everybody is hopeful of a victory for the Grizzlies. In the end the Grizzlies lose but Rosa Dolorosa succeeds, even though for Scott it is accompanied by thorny issues to deal with on a personal level. Scott reconnects with an old flame, architect Sid Taylor, sung with broad muscularity by Nathan Gunn. And though written for her, Scott loses out to Bakst for the title role of a new opera, Medea Refracted. Her dressing room becomes steeped in poignant reflections on love, loss and success, and all the while the tattooed DiDonato gives her both classy sassiness and modern believability.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade
The three-hours over two acts can feel too long in its first viewing. Outside the bel canto style, the vocal line rises naturally off the music. McNally makes them understood with a casual, uncensored language of today though occasionally the unexpected humour falls on an nonreactive musical line and a few icky lines make an attempt to cover every possible modern dilemma. The audience needn't be told "the world needs food, health, peace and beauty."

Director Jack O'Brien evokes real-time sensibility and ease, supported truthfully with simple but functional modern rectilinear spaces, minimal trappings and day-to-day streetwear (but rather drably robed Pompeian streetwear for Rosa Dolorosa) by set and costume designer Bob Crowley. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design adds realistic edge while Elaine J. McCarthy's projection designs do service to creating a football stadium and opera theatre within the confines of the stage.

The opera-within-an-opera scenes sometime feel like filler, gorgeously sung as they are, but the artists of the company endear and their performances stick memorably. After another settling orchestral opening for Act II from Heggie, "The Star-Spangled Banner" gets an amusing take from Bakst. If the audience stood for Pérez's botched up but vocally searing rendition, it wouldn't have been surprising. As Winnie Flato (Artistic Director of American Opera), Frederica von Stade makes a solid return to the stage and her opera company, with her opening night post-performance speech after Rosa Dolorosa able to bring tears.

Kevin Burdette, as the conductor Eric Gold, portrays the one eye on music and the other on stage manager Roane Heckle with bland appeal. Then doubling as the ghost of Bazzetti, Burdette gives powerful weight and commanding vocal dimension to the supernatural in what could have been a blundering insertion to the opera. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is perpetually shining as the ever hard-working, loveable and hip Roane Heckle. As the good-natured tussling tenor and baritone pair Anthony Candolino and Wendell Swann, Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes deliver a complimentarily entertaining act and young Mark Hancock courageously overcomes the demands of the stage with shouts of "Vesuvio sta per scoppiare" as Sid Taylor's son though his skateboarding across the opera-within-an-opera stage in Great Scott's final moment bemused.

Ailyn Pérez as Tatyana Bakst singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"
With Rosa Dolorosa brought to the stage, it's hard seeing it become the success it was but that's part of the amusement. Opera, like all the arts, is a difficult medium to gauge presumptions about how its audience will respond. But for Great Scott, its gift is very much its ability to get under the skin, a wanting to analyse its raison d'être, its highs and lows and intricate structure. With three world premieres of works commissioned by The Dallas Opera alone this year, a winning formula prevails and with it, the sense that opera and Super Bowl can comfortably coexist for seasons to come.

Production photos: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

CitiOpera's La Cenerentola delights with unstoppable vitality at Hawthorn Arts Centre

Kristen Leich as Cinderella and Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro
There is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin transformed into an ornate carriage and no glass slippers in the familiar story of the beautiful young cinder-stained girl called Cinderella in Gioachino Rossini's version, La Cenerentola which premiered in Rome in 1817. Rossini took the magic wand-waving out and instilled comedic realism, but the unmistakeable rags to riches story of liberation from persecution and forgiveness of perpetrator remain deeply on show.

Small independent opera company CitiOpera's new production of La Cenerentola from director Theresa Borg turned the spacious hall of Hawthorn Arts Centre's detailed Victorian classicism into a party-like atmosphere. Borg not only maintains the manic entertaining sharpness of Rossini's two-act operatic dramma giocoso but recycles the story yet again while turning up the frivolity with a delightfully tacky appeal.

With a party-hat-dressed orchestra, a stage festooned with streamers, balloons and fairly lights, and costumes seemingly inspired by the luridly bright fluorescence of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, set and costume designs by Marc McIntyre dazzle and lighting designer Daniel Jow's restless cocktail of colours is a feastly dramatic knockout. It's all achieved effectively on a shoestring, and lots of plastic, paper and rubber.

Taking the drama off the raised proscenium stage to include entrances up the central aisle and from a small balcony, Borg's utilisation of the hall injects an unstoppable vitality to the pacing.

Genevieve Dickson, Carolina Biasoli and Adrian McEniery
It's not entirely clear but Don Magnifico appears to be the lazy and lecherous owner of a tawdry club and his two tarted up, self-obsessed daughters his club hostesses. Stepdaughter Cinderella is one of the premise's chorus of cleaners and her Prince Ramiro, disguised as a valet, is nothing more than a knockabout Mr Nice Guy, comfortable in his Game of Thrones T-shirt, and who appears oblivious to class division. His "servant" Dandini pulls of the charm in disguise as the "prince" and the tutor Alidoro is disguised as a leggy dishevelled drag queen.

Jacopo Ferretti's libretto is sung in Italian and peppered with dialogue in today's English. Despite the royal titles and endearingly fuzzy interpretation on stage, the recycled tale works well. The result is magically applaudable, one where wealth and rank is relative but finding true happiness and escape from persecution is paramount. The bottom line, however, is fun and a zero tolerance for mediocrity is evident.

A splendidly sung and orchestrally rich opening night made certain of that. Occasional loss of projection and imbalances in voice delivery and timing wafted into opening night during ensemble pieces (and a few precarious headpieces and cardboard props wobbled) but the ear was treated to overall beauty.

Kristen Leich as Cinderella
As Cinderella, Kristen Leich gives one of opera's scintillating mezzo-soprano coloratura roles star quality. A soulful, melancholic-dark tone in the voice's lower range captured the persecuted Cinderella marvellously. Leich opened the voice smoothly in the middle and upper range and pleasantly paced her impeccably shaped ornamentation to expose her character's determination and dreams. In Acts II's extended aria "Nacqui all'affanno ... Non piu mesta" Leich reached higher to cut through the orchestra with fluid cyclic register changes in a sensational coloratura display, navigating her way in her zany tulle and clear plastic gown lit up by fairy lights (put together out of the recycling green bin by Alidoro's generous good taste).

It's momentarily uncertain who the guy in the cap and sleeveless padded jacket is when he strays down the central aisle, but he turns out to be part of the cast. In disguise as the valet Dandini, Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro then sets forth with a performance of engaging strength and focus. Young Choo's vocal expertise improves with every new role he tackles and here a personal best seemed on show. An immediate warmth of tone and convincing interpretive attack shone brilliantly in his tenor and, in duet with Leich's Cinderella the pair's chemistry and vocal blending was well-honed. Even their comical dance with golden broomsticks elevated the romance as much as the kiss cementing their union.

Led by a chorus of street sweepers down the central aisle as the disguised "prince", Michael Lampard stepped into his status high position with alacrity as Dandini, his richly burnished baritone impressing while guiding it through momentary insecurities with breathing. Alcohol-fuelled and gladdened by his own skimpy glam-grunge style, Matthew Thomas amusingly strutted on heels all night and sang with no-mess mastery as Alidoro.

Act 1 scene, La Cenerentola
Adrian McEniery made a portentous, ill-mannered Don Magnifico while roaring out Rossini's robust pitter-patter treats. Those ill-manners sometimes overpowered in ensemble but his character could forgivingly steal anything. Genevieve Dickson and Carolina Biasoli, as stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, managed to get through opening night with the most unmanageable costumes and headpieces with brighter, more harmonised singing the more their hopes of a "royal" marriage was doomed. A chorus of females took easily to the task in voice and broom with a pair of solid male voices curiously planted off-stage beside the orchestra.

Conducting around 20 musicians with celebratory flare, CitiOpera's Artistic Director Trevor Jones dished up Rossini in bucketloads of style. Rossini's recycled overture from his opera La Gazzetta was energised for a magnificent start on opening night and one's attention was easily drawn to the thunderous solid fortes, crispness of tones and thrilling crescendoes throughout. The dancing, textured strings and elegant brass playing were particularly satisfying.

It's CitiOpera's second outing this year at the Hawthorn Arts Centre after presenting a fiery and passionate Cavalleria Rusticana, a sign perhaps that the small independent company's itinerancy will settle there for the medium term. I hope so because it's a fine venue and CitiOpera is looking mighty comfortable in it.

Production Photographs courtesy of CitiOpera