09 June 2010

The Revolution Will Be Vocalized

Where the magic happens: Bass Performance Hall
Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

It’s the special gift of Fort Worth Opera’s general and artistic director, Darren Keith Woods, that he makes opera fun. As I’ve observed before, here and elsewhere, his productions take me back to the youthful spirit of my early days as an opera fan, when I never knew quite what to expect — except that anything I heard would be fresh and exciting and good. Every note was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Granted, in the old days, this was at least partly because I’d heard nothing at all before. Nowadays, I’m quite a bit more jaded — outside the Fort Worth city limits.

For this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, I made things a bit easier on Darren, since I was forced to miss the work I know most thoroughly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But the rest of the season was a relatively blank slate: Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (the first time I’ve attended a fully staged performance of this piece) and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, a world premiere. I knew the shows would be different; I trusted that they would be good. I wasn't disappointed.

’Til there was you: Pine and Fabiano
This and all production photographs by Ellen Appel.
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera, ©2010.

Donizetti’s romantic comedy could hardly be lighter, a storybook tale of bumbling bumpkin Nemorino and comparative sophisticate Adina (she reads), mismatched lovers who find happiness thanks to sheer luck and a bottle of Bordeaux. The setting here is updated from an anonymous, bucolic, 19th-century Italian village to the American heartland, circa The Music Man, in a handsome, crowd-pleasing staging.

Like most of this composer’s best comedies, Elisir is economically plotted and crafted. There’s only one set of lovers, and nothing goes to waste: what the libretto doesn’t spell out, his winsome score conveys. If Elisir isn’t a repertory standard like its siblings The Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale, I suspect that’s because of the treatment of the heroine: Adina undergoes a fascinating character development, but we see her almost exclusively from Nemorino’s perspective. (The big aria about her emotions is sung by him, not by her.) She plays hard-to-get a little too long, and by the time she realizes her mistake, she’s nearly lost Nemorino and married another guy whom she doesn’t even like. She learns the importance of being honest, while Nemorino remains true to himself from the get-go.

Fabiano, pining for Pine

I hate to argue with a hit show, but the production’s original director, James Robinson, blows right past the libretto’s subtler points. And there’s a cost to treating Elisir as a knockabout farce. You wouldn’t want to crush the charms of this piece, yet you need to acknowledge its emotional drama and psychological insights: it’s a richer story than Robinson and Jennifer Nicoll, who directed the staging in Fort Worth, let on. We might have been encouraged to care more about the leading characters, and a dash of suspense (will they make up in time?) might have enlivened the proceedings, too. Instead, we got some very funny stage business — and not much else.

Certainly the bravura performance of tenor Michael Fabiano as Nemorino made it difficult to shift the spotlight to anyone else. He’s got a juicy, Italianate voice that lacks only a teeny bit of the fabled “ping,” and he acted his role with adorable awkwardness. Soprano Ava Pine revealed a lush, creamy timbre and sparkling coloratura wholly unlike the jagged ferocity she unleashed as the Angel in Fort Worth’s Angels in America, two years ago; lissome and lovely, Pine seemed to be fully inhabiting Adina’s character even when Nicoll and Donizetti didn’t help her out much.

Really fine bel canto singing still thrills me like little else, and already I’m adding Fabiano and Pine to my wish-list for dozens of operas I’d like to hear. Pine returns to Fort Worth next season as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar — I can’t wait.

A dose of snake oil: Nelman as Dulcamara

Rod Nelman’s huckster Dulcamara possessed just the right flavor of ham, and Christopher Bolduc’s strutting Belcore likewise struck the right tone, though I’d have liked to have heard a bigger, even brassier sound from him, to play up further the contrasts between him and his rival, Nemorino. Conductor Stewart Robertson indulged the lyrical sweep of Donizetti’s music and lavished loving care on the young singers. Not for the first time, I admired the spirit of the Fort Worth Opera Chorus: in addition to singing wonderfully, they really seem to enjoy being onstage — as you can see in the background of the photo above.

Ample cause for celebration: Mason as Arenas

As anybody who reads this blog must realize, my usual response to any operatic production is the overwhelming desire to restage it. Surprising, then, that I spent so much of Before Night Falls wanting to revise the libretto. Jorge Martín wrote his own text (with the late Dolores M. Koch), and while he did a commendable job of identifying dramatic scenes and recounting one man’s entire biography in two acts, he was less successful in three major areas: Act I is too long and needs tightening; Act II is too sketchy and needs focus; and throughout the piece, he needs to give us more sense of his hero, Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, as a writer.

Martín’s Arenas talks about poetry, but he doesn’t use any; as near as he gets to metaphor is to insist that “This island is a prison,” and given the circumstances, that’s not much of a stretch. Are the words Arenas’ own? It doesn’t matter: real-life poets E.T.A. Hoffmann and André Chénier became credible operatic characters with scant recourse to their own work. So long as we believe they’re poets, they can be singing Burma-Shave lyrics.

The greatest problem is that Arenas’ language is like everyone else’s, as routine, as prone to sloganeering. Compelling though Martín has made Victor, the rebel leader, how much more compelling if the contrasts between his speech and Arenas’ were greater! And how much stronger our sense of loss if even one or two of Arenas’ words lingered longer in our imaginations, after the curtain has fallen.

Inspirational: Mason with Hall, as the Sea

Martín missed a few other opportunities, too. Arenas’ escape from Cuba is begging for more suspense, both from the libretto and from the score: granted, we know he’ll succeed, but that doesn’t mean the scene shouldn’t be exciting. In that same scene, we see the writer’s muses, the Sea and the Moon, guiding him to freedom — and we realize how welcome they’d have been in other scenes. Instead, we see them only where we expect them: at his desk.

That said, Martín’s triumphs as a composer are numerous, and I was particularly struck by the scenes where he seemed to say, “To hell with it, this is an opera and it’s going to behave like one.” He gives us vivid arias and ensembles that function dramatically, that communicate musically. The prime example is the scene in the rebel camp, in Act I; perfectly constructed, it takes us from idealism and camaraderie to disillusionment and authoritarianism in only a few, hair-raising minutes. Martín sets much of the scene to an Aida-like chorus in march time, and it’s here that he introduces Victor, a Scarpia-like antagonist. Thus Martín is building on a foundation laid by earlier generations — just as Puccini built on Verdi, who built on Donizetti.

Perfect construction: Inside the rebel camp.

Elsewhere in the score, Martín gives us a taste of Cuban rhythms (I could have used a few more, actually) and moody symphonic textures that feel similarly apt to his subject, though they don’t always make distinctions among the characters. As the Fort Worth Opera’s program notes point out, Martín wrote this score because he wanted to. A listener never feels that Martín is currying favor with the music establishment, or what’s left of it. Even on those occasions when he falls shy of one supposed mark or another, he writes honestly, often passionately, and, in the end, persuasively.

And isn’t that enough? Sure, I’d love to see Martín tinker a bit more with this score, to make it even more effective than it is, and yet the realities of Opera World are such that I don’t know he’ll ever have the opportunity — if in fact he wants it. Already his achievement deserves my applause. Jorge Martín heard an opera in this story, and he made me hear it, too. That’s more than most other composers can say, and I’ll relish the chance to hear what he writes next.

You say you want a revolution? Carico as Victor

The scores of many contemporary operas are lifeless until they are staged: they depend on the visual, and on the charisma of the performers, because the music frankly fails to do its job. That’s not the case with the score of Before Night Falls, and yet Martín has created a vigorous stage animal, a gift box for singing actors; he offers both invitations and challenges to directors, as well.

Director David Gately, who rescued Angels in America, here used projections and suspended screens to evoke Cuba and New York, designed by Riccardo Hernandez (sets) and Peter Nigrini (projections); I wish the team had been equally efficient when it came to moving props on- and offstage (too noisy and distracting). Meanwhile, Gately’s work with the cast proved impeccable, and in truth that’s where I’d prefer him to focus.

Enemy of the people: Victor interrogates Arenas

In the central role, impossibly young Wes Mason delivered a tour de force. Constantly onstage, he sang in a mellow, lustrous baritone while simultaneously acting, running, jumping, and dancing. He looks like Arenas, only handsomer. For future productions, it will be difficult to find anyone else who’s up to these demands; Mason will likely be unavailable, since his kind of talent is destined for a very, very busy career — in opera, movies, God knows. It’s possible that Fort Worth hasn’t been able to boast of such a promising debut since Plácido Domingo’s, in 1962.

Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico brought vocal power and shifting emotional colors to the role of Victor, now inspiring, now insinuating, now brutal and pitiless. I might have liked to see a little more elegance from him — as from the best Scarpias — but this was a mightily impressive, scarily persuasive performance. As the turncoat Pepe, Javier Abreu mingled vinegar in the honey of his tenor, and although we never learned why Pepe betrayed his friends, Abreu never let us doubt that compelling reasons existed. That’s good acting.

Ssssmokin’: Blalock and Mason
(According to my research, “Blalock” is an obscure Norse word meaning
“He who looks like a baritone when he takes off his shirt.”)

Tenor Jonathan Blalock offered a sensitively acted and sung portrayal of Lázaro, Arenas’ friend; I especially admired his finely calibrated transitions from sleazy beach pick-up to literary admirer to devoted companion. Like Victor, Pepe, and the poet Ovidio, Lázaro isn’t at heart what he at first appears to be. Another revision of Act II might reap rich rewards in this character’s further development.

Casting soprano Janice Hall as Arenas’ mother, as well as the Sea, gave us a welcome extra helping of this artist’s remarkable presence. She really can do anything, and this time out, I was particularly struck by the eloquent grace of even her simplest movements. Hall, Blalock, and Courtney Ross (as the luscious Moon) uplifted the final scene, as Arenas’ ashes were scattered and Martín’s score shimmered, swelled and soared like the muses that inspire our hero.**

Final gestures: Ross (the Moon) and Blalock (Lázaro)

In the pit, Fort Worth Opera’s music director, Joe Illick, conducted with a wonderful sense of dramatic intensity without forfeiting orchestral details or overall polish. It really sounded as if he’d studied this score for as many years as he’s lived with Don Giovanni, the other opera he led this season.*** Certainly I couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic reading of Martín’s opera.

Darren likes to say that new music is fundamental to his company’s vision, but, as I say yet again, what’s even more admirable is that his company makes all music sound new. The operatic experience is as special to the artists as it is to the audience. I don’t know how Darren manages that, but it keeps me coming back for more.

In this exclusive photo from Heather Carlile,
I ambush Joe Illick with an impromptu voice audition.
(His response: “No thanks.”)

*NOTE: Unless I’m mistaken, Castro’s name is never mentioned in Martín’s libretto; Che Guevara’s face was seen in Nigrini’s projections, but otherwise, we were allowed to ponder the universality of Arenas’ plight — though we were explicitly in Cuba, all of this could have happened under many, many other tyrants.

**If only Arenas hadn’t lain like a lox in his deathbed! It’s a moment of spiritual and artistic transcendence, and the music practically pleads with Arenas to rise up and walk off into the night. What happened?

***Given his controversial decision this season to omit the finale from Mozart’s opera, Joe Illick may have been grateful to tuck into a score that nobody else knew. I didn’t hear his Mozart, so I can’t judge how well the strategy worked.

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