05 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Adamo’s ‘Lysistrata’

War of the Sexes, Sex of the Wars: Nico and Lysia engage.
Scott Scully and Ava Pine in Mark Adamo’s opera.
Illustration (in progress) by WVM©

The final performance of Fort Worth Opera’s 2012 Festival was Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata, a contemporary comedy that had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2005; the premiere production went on to New York City Opera, where I saw it, in 2006.* Featuring a lively cast of singers who are as much fun onstage as they are off- (no small feat, that); a swift, smart staging by David Gately; a commanding interpretation by conductor Joe Illick; and the repurposed frame of the set of City Opera’s 1966 Julius Caesar, this Lysistrata was a brilliant example of what Fort Worth Opera does best. Not only was this an immensely entertaining production in and of itself, it also made the strongest case yet for Lysistrata’s place in the repertory of companies across the United States.

And it’s one measure of the ways that Fort Worth’s general director, Darren Keith Woods, has brought the audience along, not merely forcing folks to take their medicine when he presents a new opera, that my godmother, unable to attend the Festival this year, expressed greatest regret at missing Lysistrata. Clearly, Darren understands what makes new work appealing, and as a result, Fort Worth audiences are enthusiastically seizing opportunities that many other cities — too often including New York — pass by.

Mark’s libretto uses Aristophanes’ ancient comedy as a starting point for an increasingly serious examination of conflict — both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. You get some sense of his ingenious approach when you consider this opera’s “checklist” numbers, in which the men prepare for combat (two choruses) and the women prepare for love (one chorus). Broad humor, such as the exaggerated foreign accents of the Spartans (redolent of Lili von Shtupp), blends with satire (notably, the wry characterization of women protestors) — and with romantic outpourings and ultimately a hard-won, very serious wisdom, which Mark once summed up for me as “Treasure the truces.”

With comparable ingenuity, Mark’s score finds sounds to match the sense. I was particularly struck, on this occasion, by the echoes of Copland and Bernstein I heard — since I expected exactly such echoes in Mark’s first opera, the all-American Little Women, but didn’t find them there, because the last thing Mark Adamo sets out to be, is predictable. Overall Lysistrata is a complex score, its tonalities ripe for study, and yet it’s easy to enjoy, sweet and merry, hugely entertaining in its intricacies, even for those of us who aren’t scholars.

Superstar Ava Pine.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Lysistrata might well have been written for a cast of young singers, many of whom are Fort Worth favorites. As Lysia, the Athenian wife who devises the sex-for-peace bargain, soprano Ava Pine returned to the company in utterly brilliant form, willowy and gorgeous of figure and supple and shimmering of voice. Some of her previous appearances in Fort Worth have hinted at the assets she displayed in Lysistrata: her humane sense of comedy in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (2010), for example, and her fearlessness in contemporary music, as well as her flawless English diction, in Angels in America (2008).

But this performance seemed to gather up all her gifts, wrap them in a shiny ribbon, and hand them over to the audience. Has she ever been lovelier, more lyrical, more a full-fledged star? I could hardly contain my happiness.

Dimples of steel, abs of bronze:
Nico (Scully) reevaluates his strategy.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Tenor Scott Scully has appeared with the Fort Worth company a few times, too, but never in a role as substantial and as fully developed as that of Nico, the Athenian commander and Lysia’s husband. His performance on Sunday fulfilled every promise he ever made as an artist here over the years: I marveled at his heroic tone and clarion projection throughout the role’s extensive vocal and emotional range: tender, virile, true.

Other leading roles were taken by familiar faces, most of them current or former members of the company’s Opera Studio; their success underlines the suitability of Lysistrata’s score for skilled but youthful singers. Meaghan Deiter, who so courageously incarnated Katisha in last season’s Mikado, found Kleonike an authentically congenial fit for her lush tone and sharp humor. Ashley Kerr, an alumna of the Opera Studio, lent Myrrhine some of the afternoon’s most passionate vocalism; I’m nuts about her sound, and it’s telling, I think, that a role I hardly remembered from six years ago now seems quite rightfully the second female lead in this opera. Among the Spartan women, Alissa Anderson (Lampito) and Corrie Donovan (Charito) proved especially effective in comic sequences.

Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico, so memorable as the Scarpia-esque Cuban revolutionary in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls (2010), returned to play Leonidas, the Spartan general. It’s rare to find an artist so young with such a firm grasp of command, but Carico is always completely in charge of the stage and of the most difficult music. Baritone Michael Mayes, a native of Cut and Shoot, Texas (no, seriously), enjoys a sterling reputation among my opera friends, but this was the first time I’d heard his generous, supple voice: now I’m a fan, too. He returns next season in Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, and what a lucky break that I’ll be around to hear him.

The women and the men dig into their respective positions.
Richard Kagey’s design builds on Ming Cho Lee’s historic original set for Handel’s Julius Caesar, from 1966.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Given that David Gately will direct and Joe Illick will conduct Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera in which I’ll make my company debut next season, I was profoundly and personally gratified to find them both excelling in Lysistrata. Joe, who had conducted a thrilling Tosca the night before, demonstrated his range this weekend — surpassing himself, really, by tackling two such differing scores with such confidence and command. David steered the cast along tricky physical and emotional paths, without ever overdoing either the sincerity or the silliness.

As I reflect on the variety and the excellence of this season’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, I feel utterly validated in my early appraisal of the company. Darren and his team make every opera seem fresh and dynamic, and they’re afraid of nothing.** This season demonstrates their embrace of every kind of repertory, and the sensitivity and intelligence with which they approach each work. Somehow, next year, I’m going to be a part of all that. Let’s hope I’m worthy of the honor!

Your fortunate correspondent with two of his favorite singers:
Native Texans Scott Scully, WVM, and Ava Pine,
Bass Hall, Fort Worth, 3 June 2012.
Photo by Kurt Howard.

*NOTE: The role of Lysia was created by soprano Emily Pulley, another Texan, who joined Fort Worth Opera this season to sing the role of Bea in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.

**Afraid of nothing with the possible exception of Kurt Weill, that is. But hey, I’m working on the problem.

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