OPERA WHEN IT SIZZLES

by tdoadmin

OPERA WHEN IT SIZZLES

By Suzanne Calvin

During these so-called “Dog Days of Summer,” when the temperature soars to triple digit heights of discomfort, it’s a good time to remember that American Opera had its origins in tropical places like Havana and New Orleans, as well as in the cooler climate of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.   Both cities were essentially Catholic and profoundly musical, both sat at the crossroads of diverse populations and cultural influences and – like the very early American Opera capitals in Mexico and Peru, where the first operas in the Americas were composed and performed more than 300 years ago – both communities saw opera as an integral part of the civic fabric.

The year that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, 1776, Havana (a city with a population of around 50 thousand) opened the Teatro Coliseo to host a variety of musical theater offerings.  By 1801, a second opera theater had opened and within a decade there was an “official” Cuban opera company receiving regular government support.  Although influenced by homegrown and Spanish elements like the tonadilla (a short operetta tackling contemporary stories about the underclass—much like the Italian verismo movement of the late 19th century), Havana opera theaters imported most of their principal singers from Italy and France.  With a stable of stars and a large, highly professional orchestra, Havana produced as many as eighty performances a year, including works by the greatest opera composers of the day.  In fact, Mozart’s Don Giovanni had its Havana premiere in 1818 – a good seven years before it debuted on the New York stage.

During the early 1830s when opera was still an American rarity, the people of New Orleans, already well-seasoned opera and theater goers, threw themselves into the construction of an opulent four-story opera house—then the largest in the U.S.—costing an almost unheard-of $350,000.  Gold and ivory boxes (47 in the first tier) could be had for a thousand dollars per season.  The jewel in the crown of this magnificent house (which would ultimately burn down, as they all seemed to in the pre-electrical era) was a two-ton glass chandelier, made in London and containing 175 gaslights and 23-thousand prisms.  However, a ticket would only ensure you a seat; it was your personal conduct that ensured you would remain in it until curtain call.

Yes, long before Richard Wagner laid down the basic laws of modern audience behavior at Bayreuth, the management of the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans decreed: no smoking in the boxes or lobbies, hats off during the performance, no loud talking, no slaves or courtesans downstairs and no women in the front orchestra section, no rapping of walking sticks on the floors or furniture, and so forth.

“The Proprietor is determined to keep strict order in the establishment,” read the Opening Night program, “to put down, at every risk, every attempt to disturb the quiet and attention which ought always to be ascendant in a public assembly, but which is too often violated by ignorant…disorderly persons, who think…they may make as much noise as they please.”  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out (I made that part up but, really, isn’t that the attitude on display?).

Despite overbearing impresarios, opera in New Orleans and Havana not only thrived but, by the 1840s, had found a way to escape the sizzling Gulf Coast/Caribbean summers by going on tour, where they made a little history of their own.

It was a French opera company from New Orleans that first performed Donizetti’s c in New York City, taking the Big Apple by storm.  Only one of the composer’s operas had been performed in that part of the world and the company ended its successful 1843 Northeast engagement with another unfamiliar Donizetti work, Anna Bolena.  The troupe, knowing a good thing when they saw it, returned in subsequent seasons to fan the ardor for French comic opera, in addition to presenting excellent productions of grandiose works by Auber and Meyerbeer that left sophisticated newspaper critics at a loss for words.

Coincidentally, just days after the original New Orleans tour left town, a group of Italian opera singers, en route to Havana Opera, arrived in New York City in time to profit from all the excitement.  They sang Norma to wall-to-wall crowds, followed by additional bel canto works including Lucia di Lammermoor—a Havana favorite previously unknown to Eastern audiences.  This no doubt inspired the Havana opera company to include New York in a subsequent summer tour.  Praised by the New York Herald as the “most finished and excellent company that has ever visited this city,” the Havana Opera introduced more bel canto masterpieces to eager audiences, as well as Ernani and I Due Foscari by the practically unknown Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

In 1850, Havana conquered New York again with a jaw-dropping slate of crowd-pleasing programming: Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, L’elisir d’amore and La Favorite, along with the previously performed Verdi pieces and two new ones—Attila and Macbeth.  A year later, they returned for the last time, performing these same works and a couple of new ones: Bellini’s I Puritani and Donizetti’s comic gem, Don Pasquale.  Most importantly, over the course of these tours, the Caribbean-based company introduced New York audiences to something they had never before known: casts of uniformly strong, spectacular singers.  The stage was set for opera as we know and appreciate it today, and for a host of great concert and recital tours, from Jenny Lind to Enrico Caruso to The Three Tenors.

So wherever you’ve gone to escape the oppressive summer heat, be thankful that outstanding southern opera companies looking for cold cash and sweet relief brought their innovation, artistry, and fearless repertory choices with them, to make opera one of the most thoroughly international American art forms from that day to this.

 

Suzanne Calvin is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, blogger and playwright who serves as Manager/Director of Media and PR for the Dallas Opera.

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell at the Arena di Verona Part II

by tdoadmin

Act I of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of CARMEN at the Arena di Verona.

Yesterday I went to a newly opened opera museum in an old palazzo that has been funded by a support organization of the Arena di Verona.

The first part of the exhibit focused on the music publishing house of Ricordi, and featured contracts and correspondence between the various generations of the family and the composers they represented, including Verdi and Puccini.

The highlight of this part of the exhibition was an agreement between Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave to write the text for RIGOLETTO.

What astounded me was the fact that the document was a printed form with blanks to be filled in with the dates, the names of the composer and librettist, the subject of the opera and the name of the commissioning theatre all filled in by hand.   This struck me as very “high tech” for 1850!

The rest of the exhibition was a wonderful display of score manuscripts, video excerpts from past productions from the Arena, set and costume design sketches from the Arena’s old and current productions, as well as some actual costumes and large props and set pieces.

It was really interesting and highly recommended to any opera lover who finds their way to Verona.  One bit of advice, though.    Plan to go the day after you attend a performance.  If you present your ticket stub at the museum, the entrance fee is half price!

Last night’s performance was a Franco Zeffirelli production of CARMEN, and it was another massive spectacle.   The cinemascope effect of the unusually wide stage was emphasized by two full companies of flamenco dancers on side stages, dancing much of the evening.  I found it distracting, but I am sure many found it thrilling.

The singing was mostly good, and Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili made an unusually earthy, if somewhat coarse CARMEN.   Tenor Alejandro Roy stepped in for an ailing Marcelo Alvarez, and did a more than creditable job.  Perhaps the best singing of the evening, as is so often the case, was from the Micaela, soprano Irina Lungu.

The production seemed a bit generic and lacked chemistry, but perhaps some of that can be attributed to the change of tenor.  Brandon Jovaovich is scheduled to take over the role for the August performances, and I bet that will up the ante.

Act II of CARMEN at the Arena di Verona, July 2012.

TOOR-an-DOUGH

by Suzanne Calvin

 

From my very personal standpoint, it’s emphasis on the first and third syllables. But for many, many, many people reading this -- I am flat out 100% wrong and an ignoramus to boot! 

That’s one of the more charming aspects of any production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.”  Nobody argues about how you pronounce HIS name, it’s how you say the name of the Persian/Chinese/Italian princess that puts various and sundry knickers in a twist. But admit it: isn’t that the sign of true aficionados? That people would care so madly/passionately about how a fictitious character’s name is pronounced?

You’d think this opera was set at Hogwarts instead of the Imperial City.

Anyway, here’s KERA’s attempt to sort it all out for you.  Seattle Opera tackles the topic right here.

Now, just to avoid further confusion over REALLY important stuff: our production of this 20th century classic won’t take place until next spring (April 5-21,2013) in the Winspear Opera House. But lots of great preview movie screenings, tastings and budget-minded summer events are on tap through August. Check out the Dallas Opera’s cool, casual “Baritones and Beachballs” listings here.

(Photo by njmike731 at Photobucket)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR

One That Got Away

by Suzanne Calvin

My lame excuse is, I was out on vacation that week and responding to emails the next. Here’s a story I shouldn’t have missed from the ever enthusiastic opera observer, Crewmantle at COMMANDOpera, on our generous gift from the Texas Instruments Foundation. Thank you, Crew!

One question, though: Can you hail a cab in that head-gear? Successfully, I mean?

(Image courtesy of unitedmask.com)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell at the Arena di Verona

by tdoadmin

The crowd arriving for the performance at the Arena di Verona.

Every opera lover should attend a performance of AIDA once in their lifetime at the Arena di Verona.

The sheer spectacle is something out of an old Cecil B. DeMille epic, and if it wasn’t a cast of thousands then it was at least a cast of many hundreds!  Granted there weren’t elephants, but there were horses in the triumphal scene that galloped across the stage.  The basic unit set was convincingly reconfigured for each act, and if I had any complaint about the evening it was that there were three lengthy intermissions which added over an hour to the shows running time.  Considering that the performance doesn’t start until 9:15 p.m., it makes for a very long evening!

The acoustic in the open air Roman amphitheatre is legendary, and the orchestra and augmented chorus (I gave up counting, but there had to be more than one hundred) sounded terrific.

Extremely well conducted by Daniel Oren (who conducted AIDA in Dallas in the early 90’s) and wonderfully sung by an international cast headed up by Lucrecia Garcia, Jorge de Leon  and Dolora Zajick, it made for a first rate musical evening and not just the bloated spectacle that I had feared it might be.

The triumphal scene from AIDA at the Arena di Verona July 19,  2012

Edifice Complex?

by Suzanne Calvin

The glamorous French Opera House, New Orleans, after losing one of its many lives.

 

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the newest performing arts venues and whether that money could have been better spent somewhere else. But while reading David L. Groover and Cecil C. Conner, Jr.’s Skeletons from the Opera Closet, I was reminded that at the opposite end of the spectrum, there were worse things than bad acoustics to worry about in many of the old American opera houses. In New Orleans, for instance:

“…one of America’s first cultural centers after La Spectacle de la Rue St. Pierre was built in 1791. It was condemned as unsafe in 1804. The Theatre d’Orléans, home of such American premieres as L’elisir d’amore, La Juive, and Le Prophète, opened in 1809, burned down in 1813 and was rebuilt in 1816…the audience was amused by a loud cracking sound they thought part of the ingenious stage effects until they noticed the second and third galleries break away from the wall and slowly settle orchestra-ward.

“Thirty years later in 1885, when Adelina Patti sang Traviata in the rebuilt French Opera House, the audience was so unrestrained in their enthusiasm that their clamorous ovations caused the plaster ceiling to collapse. Not to be outdone, the re-rebuilt theater presented the American premiere of Gounod’s Reine de Saba in 1899. The opera’s third act features the sculptor Adoniram in his workshop, complete with roaring furnace and vats of molten metal. At the climax of the forging scene…the furnace exploded and engulfed the stage in flames. They never attempted Benvenuto Cellini.”

I should think not. Anyway, the next time you hear a complaint about overbuilt venues just remember this: We had a foot stomping, program shredding, eight minute standing O at the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick and EVERYONE lived to talk about it!

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – Venice Part II

by tdoadmin

Interior of the palco reale (Royal Box) at Teatro la fenice in Venice.

The production last night of Donizetti’s L’ELISIR D’AMORE was delightful on many levels, if somewhat old fashioned.  There was a vague attempt by stage director Bepi Morassi at being “modern” with the action set as an “opera within the opera.”   The curtain rose on the character of Adina reclining in a chaise on a little makeshift stage at the back with the chorus sitting on wooden benches in front of her.  There was also a confusing scene with Adina in her dressing room (with her character’s name and a star on the door) and her changing from a contemporary Chanel suit into her 19th century peasant costume.

It was harmless, though and didn’t undermine the piece.

The star of the evening, and undoubtedly the audience’s favorite, was Italian soprano Desiree Rancatore as Adina.  She was lovely and charming, but occasionally she insisted on interpolating somewhat jarring, effortful, and certainly gratuitous high notes in places where I am not used to hearing them.

I hadn’t heard her in several years, though and it was interesting to hear how she has developed since she burst on the scene a few years ago when she was still in her early twenties.

The tenor was Celso Albelo, a tenor new to me, but someone about whom I have heard quite a bit.  He looked pudgy in his uniform, and his less than romantic appearance was played for laughs, but he sang well enough. Somehow he didn’t connect with most of the audience, though.  There were a few cries for an encore after his aria “Una furtiva lagrima” but it all seemed half hearted, and his applause at the end of the evening seemed muted.

The conductor was Omer Meir Wellber, who had impressed me the night before with his handling of CARMEN.  This young Israeli (I gather a protégé of Daniel Barenboim) is just thirty, but led the performance superbly and with an authority that belies his youth.  He captured every hairpin turn between the elements of farce and the more serious moments of heartbreak with breathtaking control.  He is certainly a name to remember.

Now a few days break before performances at the Arena di Verona.

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell Venice Part I

by tdoadmin

I must have brought the Dallas weather with me—it is supposed to be close to 90 degrees today, and it rarely gets that hot so early in July.  The Adriatic coast of Italy is ill-equipped to cope with such heat and few buildings are air-conditioned.

I never thought I would say that the burning of the Teatro fenice in Venice was anything but a tragedy, but when the opera house (which originally opened in 1792) was rebuilt, air-conditioning was included in the construction plans.  I am very grateful.

Last night was a performance of Bizet’s CARMEN, staged by the notorious Catalan director Calixto Bieto.  Renowned (notorious, perhaps) for his brutal, violent and overtly sexual productions, this CARMEN was no exception.  The curtain rose on an essentially bare stage, which only had a pay telephone box stage right and a flag pole stage center.

If there had been any doubt about the Freudian significance of the flag pole, at the end of the first act a naked woman was hoisted up the pole while being sexually attacked by the garrison of soldiers.

At the introduction of the fate motif in the prelude, a fat old man appeared, apparently drunk and trying to perform a magic trick with a red silk handkerchief.  Was this the old “Don Jose” remembering his ill-fated love of the gypsy girl Carmen?

No, it later turns out to be the innkeeper, Lillas Pastia.

In Act II the stage was completely bare and an old Mercedes-Benz was rolled onto the stage?  Had the car broken down on the way to Lillias Pastia’s Inn?

There were graphically depicted sexual acts during the pulsating gypsy dance at the beginning of this act performed on and around the car.  I am sure that this had some profound meaning (after all, one of Carmen’s friends is named Mercedes) but it eluded me.

Most of the singing didn’t make up for the vulgar staging, with the exception of the charismatic Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov, as Escamillo.  The Carmen and Don Jose, French mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon and Italian tenor Stefano Secco, each had effective moments, particularly in the final confrontation on a completely bare stage within a chalk circle that had been laid down for them by (once again) Lillas Pastia.

Say what one will about director Calixto Bieto, he certainly knows how to create (and escalate) dramatic tension on the stage.

All of this might have been excruciating to sit through, though, if it hadn’t been for the exciting conducting of Omer Meir Wellber, the Teatro la fenice’s young music director.  He really knows how to shape the score and build excitement musically and dramatically.  There was one moment at the end of Act III where the chorus seemed to lose contact with the pit, but he somehow managed to get everyone back together.

Tonight he will conduct Donizetti’s L’ELISIR D’AMORE, and I look forward to hearing what he does with this effervescent score, in many ways, the diametric opposite of CARMEN.

The chandelier of the restored Teatro la fenice in Venice, still the most opulent opera house in the world.

View of the stage from the palco reale (Royal Box) of the Teatro la fenice.

Total Impact

by Suzanne Calvin

 

No, it’s not the name of an upcoming science fiction action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (or Colin Farrell, for that matter); it’s the measure by which the sucess of American opera companies will be measured in seasons to come.

Allow me to explain: Everyone is familiar with the term “carbon footprint,” but nowadays in the arts, it’s all about the “community footprint” we make--i.e., the total impact. Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny explores ways in which TDO is seeking to maximize its overall community impact in the latest installment of his regular feature, “Off the Cuff,” for Theater Jones.

(Collage inspired by the 1990 film Total Recall for coronacomingattractions.com)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR