17 April 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 6

Bohemians in Fort Worth: Aaron Sorenson, Rosa Betancourt, Wes Mason, Sean Panikkar, and Mary Dunleavy in rehearsal.

As news spread of the bombing attack in Boston, musician friends began to share a quotation from Leonard Bernstein. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” the Maestro said. My friends at Fort Worth Opera took him at his word, singing and playing Puccini’s La Bohème in the Sitzprobe already scheduled for Monday night.

A German term, Sitzprobe means a “sitting rehearsal,” without blocking or costumes or other finishing touches; it’s usually the first time the singers and orchestra encounter one another, as the company’s music director and Bohème’s conductor, Joe Illick, reminded me during a break.* For my part, I reminded him that this was the first Sitzprobe I’d ever attended.

Maestro Illick with the orchestra.

Indeed, thanks to my adventure with Fort Worth Opera this year, I’m getting a glimpse (or more!) of those steps in the process between auditions and final dress rehearsals, most of which I’ve been ignorant all these years. I mean, I knew that something happened on the way to the finished product, but I wasn’t exactly sure how it happened.

So as a learning experience, the Sitzprobe was fun, and probably important. Yet what mattered most on Monday was simply that I needed music. Bohème is a story of young love cut short by poverty, illness, and death. It’s poignant any time, perhaps especially at a time like this.

Arriving at rehearsal, Wes Mason greets Sean Panikkar.

Teresa Stratas, herself an acclaimed Mimì, helped me to understand Bohème as something more than a sad, romantic story: there’s a special compassion in this opera for the less fortunate. These characters barely have enough to survive in good times, and not enough at all in bad times. After all, Mimì’s death sentence isn’t the knell in the orchestra in Act IV, it’s her decision in Act III to stay with Rodolfo. She won’t leave the unhealthy Parisian winter — and it’s not clear that she could afford to, any more than she could afford medicine or a doctor’s care. So she dies.

Teresa never talks about this, but I know she donated a big chunk (maybe even all) of her performance fees from Bohème to charity.

Breaking up is hard to do: Panikkar and Dunleavy sing Act III.

These are the things you think about afterward, mostly. During the Sitzprobe, your mind is on the music itself. Richard Strauss — who composed the opera in which I’m appearing, Ariadne auf Naxos — dismissed Puccini with the remark that “Nowadays every idiot knows how to orchestrate perfectly,”** but when you’re sitting right there with the Bohème orchestra, you don’t think about idiocy and you really do concentrate on the perfection.

Maybe Bohème isn’t a lofty musical expression on the order of Strauss’ masterpieces, but it’s aiming elsewhere, not at Olympus but at life on earth. And it’s a brilliantly crafted piece. There’s not a single note too many (Strauss can’t always say the same), and each element serves the purpose of the whole. There’s a reason this is one of the world’s favorite operas. It works.

Schaunard, the musician, and Colline, the philosopher:
John Boehr and Derrick Parker.

There are so many musical pleasures in this production, starting with the Mimì, Mary Dunleavy, whose pure, sweet soprano shimmers and embraces the listener. I’d never heard the Rodolfo, Sean Panikkar, before Monday evening, but what a find he is! A clear, virile, graceful sound — and he’s tall and good-looking, too.

There’s a real satisfaction in seeing the Marcello and Musetta, both sung by young artists I’ve admired at Fort Worth Opera in previous seasons. Baritone Wes Mason knocked me out with his tour-de-force in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, when he was a mere 23 years old. Who knew there was room to improve? But now, only a few years later, he really is a grownup, in full command of his technique and with all his early promise not only fulfilled but enhanced.

“Quando m’en vo”: what Jayne Mansfield would’ve sung,
if she’d lived in the 19th century.
Rosa Betancourt as Musetta.

And anybody who can resist Rosa Betancourt’s delicious Musetta is not anybody I care to know. She’s sexy and sly, and completely capricious until the moment she realizes that, hey, maybe her personal problems aren’t as important as helping Mimì live long enough to tell Rodolfo goodbye. I’ve heard Rosa’s “Quando m’en vo” in my mind’s ear ever since.

The rest of the cast was terrific, too, including John Boehr as Schaunard, Derrick Parker as Colline, and Aaron Sorensen (who’s in Ariadne, too) as the world’s youngest dirty old men, Benoît and Alcindoro. And in the chorus, I spotted David Miller, the tenor who also plays Zerbinetta’s boyfriend in Ariadne.

Wes Mason as Marcello, Sean Panikkar as Rodolfo.

Joe Illick played the score straight through, with only one break — in the middle of Act III — so that this felt like a real performance, and highly polished. Yet Joe found passages that he wanted to rework, so after Sean’s anguished cries of “Mimì! Mimì!” the orchestra went back and played several sections again. Darned if they didn’t sound even better.

So I can confirm that we’re in for a treat when Bohème opens, launching this 2013 Fort Worth Opera Festival season. And in a world when almost every day brings some new heartache, music is here to help us carry on.

Mi chiamano Mary Dunleavy: A scene from Act I.

*NOTE: Yes, Joe is conducting both Bohème and Ariadne auf Naxos, in which I’m appearing. I’m not sure Strauss would approve, but I do. (For the record.)

**Puccini got back at Strauss, at least a little, with a joking little quotation from Salome, which he dropped into La Rondine.

Betancourt and Mason in Act II.
Marcello can see the trouble starting all over again,
but he can’t resist. Do you blame him?

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