13 December 2013

Pope Francis Accidentally Canonizes Sister Wendy

VATICAN CITY -- Surprising even veteran clerics and longtime Vatican observers, Pope Francis today canonized Sister Wendy Beckett, the popular host of several BBC documentaries on art. In a brief, unscheduled ceremony, the Pontiff bypassed the usual steps toward sainthood, including investigation, beatification, and death, though he underscored that television ratings like the ones she used to get absolutely qualified as a miracle.

Officially, the canonization is considered a “confirmation of cultus,” or recognition of local veneration.

“She’s got nearly 7,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook,” His Holiness said. “Can you imagine?”

“This Pope is moving rapidly to put his own stamp on the Church,” explained Giuseppe Frescobaldi, Vatican correspondent for Corriere della Sera. “The canonization of Sister Wendy represents a new era of openness and inclusion, as well as a willingness to reexamine traditional ways of doing things.”

Saint Sister Wendy was born in South Africa in 1930; she began to pursue her interest in art in about 1980, and produced her first documentary in 1992. As of today, the Vatican said, she will be Patron Saint of Looking at Boobies.

“I suppose all the good categories were taken already,” Saint Sister Wendy said when reached by telephone at the Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England, where she lives. “Wait!” she added, “Is this some kind of a sick joke?”

“Perhaps I have been a little hasty,” Pope Francis said at the conclusion of his announcement. “But I’m still kind of new on the job, and everybody makes mistakes once in a while.”

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28 November 2013

Preview: More Between Jefferson & Cosway

Melissa Errico

The private life of Thomas Jefferson is the focus of the next Salon/Sanctuary Concert, “More Between Heaven and Earth,” On December 8, the third President’s correspondence and the music of his time will combine to shed light on his relationship with Maria Cosway, whose intellectual and artistic gifts — to say nothing of her beauty — fascinated him for the rest of his life.

Cosway was a painter who, later in life, founded a school for girls in Italy. Music formed an important bond between her and Jefferson, and “More Between Heaven and Earth” features not only the music that she and Jefferson heard together (notably Sacchini’s opera Dardanus, a tale of separated lovers) but also songs that Cosway herself composed for Jefferson. And because this is a Salon/Sanctuary concert, the venue matches the material: New York City’s venerable Fraunces Tavern, where Jefferson, as the first U.S. Secretary of State, kept his office.

Nowadays, we tend to focus more on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings — his slave, his wife’s half-sister, and the mother of several of his children — a history fraught with the perversions of liberty in early America and the tangle of race relations ever since. But Jefferson’s relationship with Cosway was also revealing of his character. He met her in Paris, even while he’s believed to have fathered the first of Hemings’ children, and over this relationship, too, hung the specter of scandal.

Jefferson was a widower, Cosway was unhappily married, in an era when divorce meant social ruin; she was Catholic, besides, and subject to further proscriptions against divorce. History drove them apart, too, notably the French Revolution and the founding of the United States; they spent most of their lives separated by the Atlantic. Nothing could come of the attraction the two felt for each other, and yet that didn’t stop them from writing passionate letters that form the basis of Erica Gould’s script, performed by Melissa Errico (Cosway) and Campbell Scott (Jefferson), with Judith Hawking narrating.

Campbell Scott

“It’s nuanced,” Scott says, comparing the script to a great novel, in which “two really smart and educated people are expressing themselves. They’re missing each other, and it’s an odd, unrequited love. They’re very up-front about loving each other, but they can’t be together. It’s hopefully very sexy.”

As a self-described Italian–American romantic who relishes period pieces (“I’m all corsets, all the time,” she says, pointing to her role on the Cinemax series The Knick), Errico finds Cosway an irresistibly appealing part, and this isn’t the first time she’s joined Salon/Sanctuary for “More Between Heaven and Earth.”

“It’s being done in an exciting way,” she says. “We’re wearing period costumes, we candle-light the room, the other singers are up in the balconies in this historical space. It’s like going back in time. It’s certainly not a play that’s in a box: you’re surrounded by the era.”

The more Classical assignments in the concert will be fielded by soprano Jessica Gould and tenor Tony Boutté, with members of the instrumental group the Sebastians led by Jeffrey Grossman. But for Cosway’s songs, Errico will “step in front of the harpsichords” to sing.

Maria Cosway: Like Isabel Archer,
but with more interesting friends.

“Maria’s songs are not really operatic but personal,” she says, and for her they’re tied to the letters, “written directly from her heart, [with] melancholy because of the physical distance from her lover and her unhappy marriage.” Errico’s maternal grandmother once dreamed of a career in opera, and her father still pursues Classical piano at Juilliard; for her own part she’s won acclaim singing the lyric leading roles in My Fair Lady and One Touch of Venus. “But I’m more a theater person,” she says, and she strives to make Cosway’s songs “very simple and very direct, like in a small room for a small group of friends, accompanied by a harp. This wasn’t meant to be projected at the Met.”

Best known for his co-starring role in Longtime Companion and for co-directing the brilliant Big Night, Scott has played Jefferson once before — “in a wig, on PBS,” he says. He relishes the chance to perform the authentic words of people who “were really the heads of their societies, leading figures for different reasons, and smart. That doesn’t mean they always expressed their own feelings perfectly — which is also great to say. But they’re so well-spoken. If you become an actor, that’s something you desire. It’s what you seek out.”

He’s relieved, however, that as Jefferson he won’t be called on to sing: “That might grind the evening to a halt. Although if asked to play the violin, I could fake it.” Meanwhile Errico has determined that, if Salon/Sanctuary revives “More Between Heaven and Earth” again, she’ll learn to accompany herself on the harp — but not in time for the performance on December 8.

No matter. “People who love music will get the music and a great story,” Scott promises. “And people who love the characters, you get the music. It’s a bonus night, for God’s sake!”

More Between Heaven and Earth
Sunday, December 8, 6:00 P.M.
The Bissel Room, Fraunces Tavern

54 Pearl Street, New York
Script & stage direction by Erica Gould
Program concept & music research by Jessica Gould
For more information, click here.

Jefferson: A complex personality.

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23 October 2013

Baden-Baden in 1927, Gotham in 2013

Maeve Höglund and the great Helen Donath
show us the way to Baden-Baden.
Photo by Richard Termine©

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest production, Baden-Baden 1927, opens tonight at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College: it reunites the four one-act operas that made history at the Baden-Baden Festival in — you guessed it — 1927. Only one of those works, Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel, has been heard much since then. The chance to hear it again among its sisters — in context — is an opportunity to appreciate one of those lightning-flash moments of creative energy, in which a generation is illuminated.

The quadruple bill at Baden-Baden represents the work of some of the greatest lions of twentieth-century music and theater, from a time when they were scrappy young kids in a terrible economy at a turbulent time. The old order had been smashed, and new technologies (radio!) and forms (jazz!) emerged in Europe, demanding that creative minds make deliberate decisions about the paths they would take forward.

And so it’s important to remember that, when Darius Milhaud composed L’Enlèvement d’Europe (The Rape of Europa), he wasn’t the grey eminence who attached himself like ivy to so many university campuses — that, when Bertolt Brecht wrote four of the six poems for the Mahagonny Songspiel, he wasn’t the hallowed institution of East Germany, or of any other state but that of his own mind — that, when Ernst Toch wrote Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, there was still a chance that he’d wind up as famous as Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, the other composers on the bill.

No, they weren’t yet the Artistic Establishment. They were young people demanding attention, casting aside preconceptions, seeking new solutions because the old solutions — political, as well as artistic — had failed. They knew they had to find the answers within their own talents. In 1927, at the end of Mahagonny Songspiel, while the other cast members held up placards proclaiming various and contradictory politico-philosophical statements, Lenya held up a sign that said simply, “Für Weill.”

In the beginning: Brecht, Lenya, and Weill.

What strikes me is how exactly right the Baden-Baden bill is for Gotham Chamber Opera. The company taps into youthful energy most obviously in its imaginative, irreverent stagings and its casting, relying primarily on attractive young American singers. But over the years since the company’s founding, New York has crowded out its artists, who have moved farther and farther away from the center because (through the active and explicit policy of our billionaire mayor) housing is no longer affordable. The operatic institutions that might make a difference are facing their own challenges: Dicapo Opera is struggling, New York City Opera has filed for bankruptcy, and the Metropolitan, while embracing new technologies and paying more attention to theatrical values (and, on occasion, to more eclectic repertory), never has launched the hoped-for, dreamed-of Mini Met.

Gotham has stepped forward, in its small and (mostly) quiet way, to meet the needs of this city’s artistic community and its audiences. The company treats no score as a museum piece; it seeks new solutions, to reconsider the tried and to test the untried. It exults in the fun and the sexiness of music-theater that too often get lost on other stages. And significantly, Gotham consistently appeals to younger and older audiences, a feat that other companies can’t match.

I’ve long believed that among New York’s cultural entities, Gotham is best positioned to leap forward after the debacle of City Opera: there will be less competition for donors, and the company deserves to benefit and to grow. Yes, there are limits to what one can do within the chamber repertory. Gotham won’t and can’t replace NYCO — but already it has become very like what people mean when they talk about a Mini Met.

Since I started working at the Weill Foundation in 1984, I’ve waited for the opportunity to hear the Baden-Baden bill. And yet it’s not merely as a devoted disciple of Weill that I’m looking forward to the latest offering from Gotham Chamber Opera; it’s also as a New Yorker that I’m glad to hail a bright spot on our too-cloudy cultural landscape.

Gotham Chamber Opera, Baden-Baden 1927:
Mahagonny Songspiel, Weill
Hin und zurück, Hindemith
L’Enlèvement d’Europe, Milhaud
Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, Toch

Conducted by Neal Goren
Directed by Paul Curran
Designed by Georg Baselitz, Court Watson, Driscoll Otto, and Paul Hackenmueller.
With Helen Donath, Maeve Höglund, Jennifer Rivera, Daniel Montenegro, Matthew Tuell, Michael Mayes, and John Cheek
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
Oct. 23 at 7:30, Oct. 25, 26, 29 at 8:00.
For more information and tickets, click here.

Set design for Milhaud’s Enlèvement.

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14 September 2013

New York City Opera: Business As Usual, Despite Challenges

By George Steel,
General Manager and Artistic Director,
New York City Opera
Guest Columnist

As you may know, last weekend I announced that, if New York City Opera couldn’t raise $7 million by the end of this month, we’d have to cancel three out of four operas this season; if we can’t raise $20 million by the end of the year, we’ll have to cancel the 2014–15 season altogether.

Almost immediately, people began to ask, “What happens to NYCO if there are no more operas produced after September 2013?”

Such questions are of course self-defeating and frankly ridiculous. NYCO has a proud tradition, under such distinguished general managers as what’s her name and the irritating old guy with the accent, of bouncing back from the brink of disaster time and again. Under my dynamic leadership, there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. Besides, we have a Kickstarter campaign! What could possibly go wrong?

The people who ask, “What happens if you fail?” are probably the exact same people who were asking, “Isn’t there some way to stay at Lincoln Center, where people at least know where to find you?” and “Are you sure you want to alienate the very artists who once made this company great and who might have helped you now?”

Well, you can see for yourself how foolish those questions were. Look how great everything turned out!

The NYCO logo: A resounding rebuttal to those
who say that City Opera has become a black hole,
endlessly sucking money out of the universe.

We’re doing a better job than ever of fulfilling our mission: bringing opera to the people of New York City. We’re not confined to one theater, or any theater at all!

There are no limits! Just yesterday in Times Square, I listened to one of our esteemed orchestra members playing the Habanera from Carmen for passersby who may never have heard opera before!

Of course, that violinist was panhandling for tourists, because we can no longer afford to hire musicians full-time. But still! Mission accomplished!

And I’d say she made about four dollars before the cops chased her away.

Even if, in the near future, NYCO has no home, no productions, no artists, and no cash, we will continue to pursue our goals, exactly as we did for how ever many decades we have been in existence.

For instance, I am currently planning to launch “Opera on Wheels,” one of the most innovative programs since the bookmobile and the Nyco® Felafel Cart. We’ll send out a van with a boombox and a loudspeaker, bringing recorded opera, and possibly ice cream or tacos, and reaching every neighborhood in the city. If you’ve got a valid New York drivers license and some old CDs, why not volunteer to help out?

Also, let us know if you’ve got a van to lend us. Have you checked the prices on rentals lately?

I’m not making this up, you know:
One of the “gorgeous” rewards for Kickstarter pledges.

Come Hell or high water, NYCO will continue our educational programs, which now feature special classes in papier mâché in New York’s public schools, using our own supply of wet paper left over from the archive that flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Kids love to play with wet paper!

And while the kids are making masks and ashtrays and Christmas ornaments (all of which we’ll be offering as premiums for Kickstarter pledges), we can introduce a new generation of New Yorkers to the wonderful world of Johann Christian Bach.

We’ll also be staging “flash mobs,” with impromptu performances of scenes and arias in exciting venues such as the Fairway Market and South Street Seaport. Such productions are a great way to reach new audiences, and they’re incredibly inexpensive, because we don’t pay for them.

In addition, I’m currently actively seeking out compromising photographs or video of wealthy people and political figures. This is difficult work, but I know it will pay off for NYCO. Let me know if you hear of any leads.

Meanwhile, let’s emphasize the positives, shall we? We’re no longer reliant on that minuscule portion of our audience that used to show up at our performances because the Met was sold out and hey, we were right across the Plaza. No, we now have a dedicated audience of people who really work to find out what we’re doing and where we are.

Not your grandfather’s NYCO:
What a flash mob opera might look like.

Our board stands firmly behind me and my innovative management ideas. These are the same people who thought it was a good idea to go dark for a season, the same people who hired one general director whose experience was in state-funded European companies and another whose experience was in a university concert series. It’s their vision and their support that make NYCO what it is today, and I thank them, as I’m sure you do, too.

Finally, there’s one more question that’s come up a lot lately: “Why should I throw good money after bad?” I object to the question on principle, as you might expect, but let me try to address the concerns behind it.

Imagine New York with only one major opera company. Imagine New York without a showcase for rising American artists. Imagine New York with nothing more than memories of historic productions, legendary singers, and repertoire that ranged from crowd-pleasing classics to thrilling new discoveries. Above all, imagine New York without the sense of community — yes, of family — that opera can bring, year after year.

Well, you don’t have to imagine, because I’ve already tackled those problems. My point is, if you don’t give us the money, things can only get worse. Thank you.

Illustration courtesy of our friends at Parterre Box.

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10 September 2013

Man Waking from Surgery Stunned to Learn He Is a Joyce DiDonato Fan

A man coming out of surgery and still under the influence of anesthesia was talking to a lady next to his bed when he realized he was listening to a Joyce DiDonato album.

“Man, is that a great voice,” he says, CD in hand. “Whoa! That may be the prettiest voice I’ve ever heard. Who is that?”

“That’s Joyce DiDonato,” a friend says off-camera. “You’re a fan of hers.”

“I’m her fan?” the man says, his voice cracking. “Holy s***. Dang. You mean I’ve heard her sing live?”

“Several times.”

“Do I own her record albums and DVDs?”


The man eats a cracker while thinking about this. “How long have I been her fan?”

“Almost from the beginning, ever since you saw her in Mark Adamo’s Little Women. You’ve even met her.”

“I have?”

“Several times. And she has a new album coming out.”

“Oh, my God, I hit the jackpot!”

While the video was not available for republication here, experts believe it is authentic. Some skeptics, however, insist that the man is not waking from surgery, but has merely lost his mind due to intense deadline pressure as he completes the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn. “The scruffy beard is a dead giveaway,” said one analyst, Dr. Kevin Daly of the American Institutes for Amnesia and Something Else I Can’t Quite Remember.

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28 August 2013

Progress Report 20: From Beyond the Deadline

Madeline was telling me the news. She was so pleased and so flattered, she said, to discover that Julie Harris would be playing the lead in the upcoming film The Madeline Kahn Story.

Harris died a few days ago. I didn’t have the heart to tell Madeline this. I did make some protest: “But Julie Harris isn’t a singer!”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Madeline replied, and suddenly I wasn’t sure whether I’d misunderstood and gotten it backwards, and somehow Madeline might be playing the lead in The Julie Harris Story. A dream role, really, when you think about it.

But if Madeline was making another movie, this of course would mean that I’d have to do more research, possibly more interviews — and I awoke with a start.

Madeline worked in Santa Fe, too:
As Esperanza in Lucky Luke.

Yes, we’ve come to that point. The manuscript for the authorized biography is due in the hands of my editor in a very, very, very few days. For a few weeks, apart from the trip to Santa Fe earlier this month, I have barely left my desk. Dreaming is actually something of an achievement, because I haven’t been getting much sleep. I haven’t seen a barber since the beginning of the year, and since I can’t be bothered to shave more than once or twice a week, much of the time I look like late-stage Howard Hughes.

And yet it’s coming together, even as new information and new interviews have continued to come my way. Even in Santa Fe, I was working on the book whenever I wasn’t at the opera, and I landed long-awaited conversations with Jane Alexander, Madeline’s co-star in City Heat and The Sisters Rosensweig; and with Richard Fredericks, the Met and City Opera baritone who played Ravenal to Madeline’s Magnolia in a production of Show Boat in Sacramento, exactly 44 years ago.

Leads lead to more leads. For example, I had a terrific conversation with Maddie Corman, who played Madeline’s niece in the TV sitcom Mr. President. At one point, she said, “My mother-in-law worked with Madeline — do you want to talk to her?” And that’s how I reached Jane Alexander after all these years.

Talking to Jane Alexander really made my day.
Alexander with Clint Eastwood in City Heat.

Working down to the wire, I’ve also interviewed a few more members of Madeline’s family and Kevin Kline, her co-star in On the Twentieth Century; scored an urgently needed follow-up interview with Mel Brooks; and spoken with several people who worked behind the scenes with Madeline on any number of projects.

I’ve tracked down more newspaper and magazine articles, playbills and plays. Dorothy Danner, who directed the wonderful production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment in Fort Worth this spring, co-starred with Madeline in New Faces of 1968. She just happens to own a copy of the script from the show, and shared it with me. You’ll be amazed to learn what was and what wasn’t originally included in the running order.

And I’ve reviewed several of Madeline’s films, and seen for the first time the recently released Blu-Ray edition of At Long Last Love — no easy task when you don’t own a Blu-Ray player. And all of this while I’m wrestling with the actual writing of the book.

So I’m a little crazed right now. Hearing Madeline sing “You Don’t Love As I Do” in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother the other night, I got a little teary, in fact, and who knows what shape I’ll be in by the time I type the final period.

But Madeline Kahn in The Julie Harris Story! What a test of her talents to reenact scenes from everything from A Member of the Wedding and I Am a Camera to The Belle of Amherst and The Gin Game! Why, really, only one actress has ever managed to display such range.

No wonder Madeline couldn’t wait to tell me about it.

Maybe we could get James Franco to play James Dean
opposite Madeline in The Julie Harris Story.

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21 August 2013

Parisians Now ‘Much Too Polite,’ Tourists Say

Foreign visitors at a Parisian café.

PARIS -- Just a few weeks after another campaign by Paris’ board of tourism designed to sensitize service-industry workers to the needs and preferences of visitors, Paris has become “much too polite” for many tourists.

“We could have been in Muncie,” complained Margaret Velveetinson, of Indianapolis, after a recent trip to the French capital. “Nobody sneered at my accent or the fact that I wanted to eat breakfast at 10 in the morning. Nobody snubbed me. Where’s my authentic Parisian experience?”

Her husband, George Velveetinson, agreed. “I had only one year of French in high school, and that was 40 years ago,” he said. “I thought for sure somebody would make fun of me. But nobody did! Even when I asked them to speak English, they weren’t rude. I want my money back.”

This sudden wave of considerate behavior on the part of Paris’ waiters and hotel clerks is due in large part to the phenomenal response to “Do You Speak Touriste?,” a guide distributed by the board of tourism. It describes the goals and concerns of foreign visitors, and suggests ways that French workers can make a visit more enjoyable for everyone.

These include such helpful hints as serving water with meals when asked to do so, using first names when addressing strangers, keeping wait times to a minimum, and not muttering obscenities in French as soon as one turns one’s back on a tourist.

The cover of the popular guide.

“Before reading this essential brochure, I never understood what a Big Mac or a Coca-Cola can represent to a person who is far from home and seeks the comfort of the familiar,” admitted Jacques Froideur, a waiter at the Café Impertinence, off the Champs-Elysées. “While I understand that, in a café that serves only French cuisine at outrageous prices, I cannot give a tourist precisely what he wants, I now feel a need to be as cheerful and helpful as the counter staff at any fast-food restaurant in the American heartland.

“After all,” Froideur added, “the Americans saved our — how do you say? Asses? Two world wars! And have we ever thanked them properly? It is my duty as a man of honor to make things right in any way I can.”

Previous efforts by the tourism board and other entities have met with limited success. No one expected Parisians to take “Do You Speak Touriste?” to heart — least of all the tourists. An informal survey of visitors from eleven countries found bewilderment and even resentment: Paris is not living up to its reputation. That a city renowned for its art, food, and monuments also be friendly strikes many visitors as unfair.

“What am I supposed to tell the neighbors?” said Jolene Rollerboard, of Little Rock. “That I went to Paris and had a nice time?”

“Next year, we’re going to New York,” said her friend, Mae Belle Samsonite. “I hear they’re really rude there.”

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13 August 2013

Further Proof of Shakespeare’s Hand in a Disputed 1957 Musical

A scene from Shakespeare’s West Side Story:
Carol Lawrence with my beloved Larry Kert.

For nearly six decades, scholars have debated whether some part of the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story was, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Fforbes-Garstley used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Source Material was by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

“While it’s very difficult to find entire passages that are written by Shakespeare, individual words and phrases are very clearly his,” Fforbes-Garstley said. “For example, I note the repeated use of ‘hand,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘tonight,’ all words that arise with great statistical frequency in Shakespeare’s vocabulary in the canonical works.”

But now, a professor at the University of Ronkonkoma says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: blind speculation, not computer analysis.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Kenneth Oberon argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Source Material — including such characters as Officer Krupke and Anybody’s that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as misreadings of unfinished manuscripts delivered in error to the print shop.

“The character of Maria clearly is an early model for Olivia’s spunky confidante in Twelfth Night,” Oberon said. “A rough draft, if you will.”

Only later would Shakespeare shift the primary emphasis of his play away from Maria and toward other characters, notably Viola, Oberon said. Also, in the early stages of Shakespeare’s work, he preferred a different pronunciation of the character’s name: “Ma-REE-ah,” rather than his later preference, “Ma-RYE-ah.”

The character also makes an appearance in another disputed musical, which some scholars believe to have been written by Shakespeare, Paint Your Wagon.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
According to some scholars, this scene shows
definite traces of Shakespearean authorship.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Norman Voles, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of Kiss Me, Kate, only to retract his argument six years later after analyses by Fforbes-Garstley and others linked it to a different author, Marcel Proust.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Oberon’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Fforbes-Garstley and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Bruce Mittelschmerz, a professor at the University of Wainscoting and an editor, with Teresa Rinteria, of the British Dental Assocation’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Mr. Mittelschmerz said. “It has his fingerprints all over it. Oh, sorry. Those are mine.”

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some scholars were skeptical when the Arlen Shakespeare published A Little Night Music, a play from roughly the same period whose connection with a lost Shakespeare drama had long been debated, in its prestigious Shakespeare series.

“There is simply not enough dancing in that show to prove categorically that it is the work of William Shakespeare,” said Titania Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxblood University and an editor for the Arlen Shakespeare, although she conceded that some of the language in A Little Night Music closely resembles that of other disputed Shakespeare texts, including West Side Story and Gypsy.

However, Ms. Stern said, some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers’ desire to offer “more Shakespeare” than their rivals.

“The arguments for West Side Story are better than most” putatitve Shakespeare collaborations, Ms. Stern said. “But I think we’re going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

NOTE: For more on the attribution of Shakespeare’s authorship to disputed works, click here. For my part, I’m not at all surprised that Shakespeare, a glover’s son, might have a hand in Kyd.

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11 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: Morrison’s ‘Oscar,’ or the Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

Not guilty: David Daniels as Wilde in Gaol.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar comes to the stage of the Santa Fe Opera Festival with such good intentions, such an interesting back story, such timely subject matter, and such an opera-worthy central figure (you can’t have Strauss’ Salome without Oscar Wilde, after all) that one really wants to like the piece. Indeed, there’s much to admire in this world premiere production, particularly in the score and in the orchestrations.

But with a badly structured, often tedious libretto and an overwhelming excess of earnestness, Oscar left me quibbling. Surely Wilde was not that great a genius, I found myself thinking, though I’m enough of a fan that in college I took on the challenge of staging Salome (quite badly, I admit). And while he was unquestionably a martyr, Wilde has always struck me as a poor role model for proud gays — though that’s very much the way that Morrison and his co-librettist, John Cox, present him.

By the time we reach the opera’s finale, patience evaporates. Wilde is portrayed as increasingly saintly over the course of two acts: the concluding scene is nothing less than his apotheosis. He’s welcomed into Immortality by a chorus of white-gowned, golden-haired worthies. I had to hold my nose to keep from laughing.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the over-earnestness of Oscar and the degree to which this undermines the opera as a whole. For all its merits, Morrison’s score isn’t sufficiently compelling to overcome the flaws in the libretto, and even a smart, good-looking production, staged by Kevin Newbury and featuring stellar performances from William Burden, Heidi Stober, Dwayne Croft, Kevin Burdette, and in the title role, David Daniels, can’t salvage the evening.

The tragic hero’s choice: Ada Leverson (Heidi Stober)
and Frank Harris (William Burden) try to save Wilde.

Morrison is in his mid-seventies, and Oscar is his first opera, a certifiable labor of love brought to fruition in one of the most prestigious venues on earth. He waited a long time for this, and again, one wants to root for him and his work. Always tonal, always appropriate to the emotional tenor of the scenes, his music bears the influence of Stravinsky and Weill (that I noticed) — but he seems to have a short attention span, moving on to new ideas before he’s fully developed the theme at hand. In Act II, where we shift from biography to hagiography, he proved unable to sustain my interest: I confess I nodded off a few times.

Oscar seems at all times to be uncertain what it is and what it wants to do — beyond elevating Wilde to heights where he can’t breathe. Thus in Act I we get an almost Odets-like, realistic scene in the children’s nursery of Ada Leverson (Stober), complete with mundane hellos and chitchat, that leads to a psychologically revealing conversation about Oscar’s future: should he face trial, honorably, or should he flee England? A vision of his lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (who has scarpered off to safety, and who is eloquently embodied by the dancer Reed Luplau, in choreography by Seán Curran) persuades Oscar to make his tragic choice — whereupon the toys in the nursery come to life and enact the trial.

This scene, the finale of Act I, is about as Brechtian as you can get, and in many respects it’s the highlight of the entire opera and its justification as a work for the stage. It also provides an extraordinary spotlight for the indispensable Kevin Burdette, as the judge — here, a jack-in-the-box. And yet in turn this scene casts unfavorable light on Act II, where Burdette plays the governor of Reading Gaol, in this telling a cartoon villain less credible than Snidely Whiplash.

Victorianisches Verfremdungseffekt:
About as Brechtian as you can get.

Indeed, overstatement is a problem throughout this opera. In the opening sequence, the Marquess of Queensbury’s minions (Aaron Pegram and Rocky Sellers) effectively blacklist Wilde from every hotel in London, warning desk clerks of reprisals and calling out the poet: “Bugger! Queer!” Had they appeared only in this scene, they would have made their point — but they keep coming back, in other guises, always calling out nasty names. It’s a struggle not to shout back, “I get it already!”

Fortunately, Burdette and Pegram also play bad guys in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe this season, so we know (if we didn’t already) that they’re capable of better. Stober and Burden (as Frank Harris) turn in thoroughly credible, beautifully sung performances in better-written scenes, but Croft is left to fend for himself.

He plays the ghost of Walt Whitman, functioning much as Che Guevara does in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Evita, though at least in this case our narrator is known to have met our protagonist. Accounts of the meeting of Wilde and Whitman are fascinating, leaving a reader to wonder who was fooling whom. Here, Whitman is an ardent booster, and he provides background information better left to program notes.*

Most troubling is the voice type. Wilde is written for countertenor, the only one in this opera, in order to signal his otherness. But Whitman, who was just as “other” as Wilde, is written for baritone. Croft sings as well as I’ve ever heard him, but to no avail.

And so we come to Wilde himself. Openly flamboyant but not more, he was married and a father of two who fought back when he was accused of being a “somdomite” (as the misspelled note from the Marquess claimed — one of the only minute details missing from the libretto) rather than admitting his true nature. The opera finds him discovering compassion in Reading Gaol as he listens to two thieves (hello, Jesus?) and proclaiming a newfound mission once he’s liberated. Historically, of course, he never pursued any such mission. He led the remaining short years in squalor, exile, and attempted anonymity. But no matter! He’s a hero! A saint!

The trial scene, with Kevin Burdette
as Mr. Justice Sir Alfred Wills.

Certainly the scenes between Daniels and Luplau (whose Bosie takes on several guises, including that of Death) elicit the still-novel frisson of recognition for gay men who watch this opera, especially now, when the rights of couples are being recognized in so many parts of the United States. Yes, you think, that’s a relationship not entirely unlike my own, right up there on the stage where I’m accustomed to seeing nobody but men and women. Yet Oscar and Bosie’s love is never depicted with sufficient truth or feeling to move beyond what amounts to titillation.

This takes nothing away from Daniels’ performance, which is fully committed and sung with warmth and character. He’s onstage almost constantly, and one certainly admires his dedication. (And stamina!) Among the qualities that set him apart — and on the path to superstardom — at the start of his career, was his burnished, heroic virility, even while he sang in “feminine” registers, and he accentuated that by keeping a scruffy beard. Here, the beard is shaven clean away, the better to look like Wilde. But no razor, nor even his acting, nor even his dancing (in the best of the sequences with Bosie) can save this character or this opera.

We are talking about Oscar Wilde here, aren’t we? Well, no. Not really. It’s striking that, beyond the structure and aims of the libretto, Morrison and Cox fail at what might have been expected to be the easiest task: somehow they manage to quote liberally from their historical sources with barely a trace of wit. (For that, you think, Wilde might sue for libel — and win.) Oscar gets off one epigram, at the end of the opera, and while it’s welcome in the circumstance, it’s too late to do much good.

Evan Rogister conducts with the utmost sympathy, and he provides a driving force that the score itself lacks. David Korins’ set design is best in its discovery of the visual parallels between a Victorian library and a Victorian prison. David C. Woolard’s costumes are hit and miss, gorgeous in the case of Leverson’s gown, ingenious in the case of the toy jury, but downright ugly in the case of Wilde’s purple jacket and pearl-white overcoat, and nearly ludicrous in the case of the angelic Immortals.

It’s because of that immortality that Whitman wears a pale-cream suit. Yet ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Whitman looks like Mark Twain: we’re watching an opera about historical figures, in which truth has nothing to do with anything. Oscar is, as Wilde might put it, a trivial opera about serious people.

Theodore Morrison’s Oscar plays again August 12 and 17.
It’s unlikely you’ll get another opportunity to hear it. For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: Fort Worth Opera fans will want to know that tenor David Blalock sings one of the prisoners in Act II. He does so with a clear, open voice and great style — of course.

*I’m reminded of director Lee Blakeley’s decision to set Santa Fe’s new production of The Grand Duchess in the United States. Is there some prevailing belief that Santa Fe audiences won’t find a story compelling if there’s not something American in it? If so, then I’ve all the more reason to be grateful that La Donna del Lago isn’t depicted as a Laker Girl.

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09 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Family portrait: Susanna (Oropesa), Figaro (Nelson),
Marcellina (Mentzer), and Bartolo (Travis).
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, from 2008, is a perfect little jewel. Now in the sure hands of Bruce Donnell, the staging tells the story straight but not hyper-realistically: we see this most clearly in the set designs, by Paul Brown, which use a span of wall and a few items of furniture (naturally including an armchair in Act I) to suggest the location. Always in the background, we see a sort of meadow of flowers, periodically picked or replenished by silent lackeys. The most furnished, literally depicted setting is the Countess’ bedroom, and yet it’s suitably intimate, not Zeffirellian, in tastefully subdued colors.

The result is that the audience concentrates on the details of the relationships among the characters — which is precisely what Donnell and his cast of sensational singing actors have done. With John Nelson offering sensitive guidance from the orchestra, this is one of the most completely satisfying Figaros I’ve seen.

The two singers with whose work I’m most familiar are Susanne Mentzer (as Marcellina) and Daniel Okulitch (as the Count). Both have sung other roles in this opera many times: she’s a renowned Cherubino, and he’s a widely traveled Figaro. This experience may have lent extra insight into the characters they’re singing now — role debuts for both — and they’re gifted artists to begin with. But nothing could have prepared me for the delights they delivered in last night’s performance.

Compromising situations: Cherubino (Fons) spies
as the Count (Okulitch) tries to win over Susanna (Oropesa).

Mentzer is absolutely adorable, dancing with pleasure as she looks forward to marrying Figaro, and perfectly content with her consolation prize, the decidedly less enthusiastic Bartolo (Dale Travis). Her Marcellina is almost — dare I say it — girlish, and her motives are so clear and so understandable that we wind up sympathizing with her. That’s something I never quite expected to do in this or any Figaro. Her singing is warm and even, and she really whetted my appetite for her forthcoming album of songs by Carlisle Floyd.

I sat through the entire evening thinking that this was Okulitch’s 997th performance as the Count, rather than his fifth. He has mastered the aristocratic refinement so necessary to this character and so seldom seen, and he conveys menace without crudity or violence. This Count has terrible attitudes toward women, yes, but he is (or tries to be) a stylish seducer, not a brutal rapist; the singer who plays him must always show us some traces of the man with whom Rosina once fell in love. Okulitch did this brilliantly, with such scrupulous attention to the text that it seemed as though he were performing a straight play — except that he was singing all the while, in that suave, supple, yet mighty voice.

Smooth operator: Okulitch as the Count.

The rest of the cast comprises singers with whom I’m less familiar or whose work I didn’t know at all before last night. They’re marvelous individually and as an ensemble. Emily Fons is perhaps the most effortlessly boyish Cherubino I’ve seen — and she’d better be at the top of her game when so many of us in the audience remember Mentzer in this role. Lisette Oropesa (who shares Madeline Kahn’s birthday) sings Susanna with sweet vibrance and spunky stage presence. I admired Oropesa in The Enchanted Island at the Met two seasons ago, and here, with superior dramatic material, she’s winning.

Zachary Nelson incarnates Figaro with just the right amount of physical verve: he knows when to move and when to be still. (Another rare gift, especially in this role.) He delivers his music with abundantly virile tone, and he created a grounded character, a regular guy who just happens to be the smartest person onstage, give or take Susanna. Best of all was the genuine rapport among Nelson, Oropesa, and Fons: I really had no trouble believing that these people had known each other for years, which in turn makes the entire story more credible and profound.

Master, maid, and minion: Okulitch, Oropesa, and Jameson.

Travis looks like a picture-book illustration of Bartolo, and while he may have lost a little sympathy for resisting the irresistible Marcellina, he was hardly the caricature one so often sees in this role — a much nicer guy than the bully in The Barber of Seville. Keith Jameson’s Basilio is the rare music master who doesn’t act as if he’s dropped in from some other opera entirely; perfectly matching the comedic style of this production, he sings with the clarity and appeal I’ve come to expect from him.

Soprano Susana Phillips’ performance helped to show what was right about John Nelson’s conducting. Her big, creamy instrument has a natural plangency that works well for the character, and together she and Nelson developed a flexible approach that permitted her to ornament and stretch out lines and to drop into the softest possible singing as circumstances required in “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono,” with spellbinding results in both arias. Depressed as the poor Countess is, Phillips gave plenty of indication that she’s the same Rosina who fooled Bartolo in Barber — and who admits to her affair with Cherubino in La Mère coupable.

Susanna Phillips as the Countess.

In most regards, this was a straightforward production of a well-known work. Nothing groundbreaking. Comedy derived from character, situation, and expression, rather than from exaggeration, and political and psychological points were made without recourse to overwrought concepts and underlining. It’s clear that everyone concerned lavished exceptional care on this production, and by getting the little stuff right, they got just about everything right.

God is in the details, they say, and on the strength of this performance, I’d say that Mozart is, too.

Fun and games: Fons and Oropesa.

The Marriage of Figaro continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 23. For tickets and more information, click here.

For information about Okulitch’s recital album of new American art songs, and for updates on Mentzer’s forthcoming Carlisle Floyd album, click here.

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Regina Resnik

Seldom have I met anybody better suited to her name than Regina Resnik, the mezzo-soprano whose death has just been announced. Her husband, the late artist Arbit Blatas, was a devoted fan of The Threepenny Opera and created a remarkable series of paintings, drawings, and lithographs of his impressions of the long-running production at the Theatre de Lys in New York. And so Regina and Arbit became “Friends of the Foundation,” who used to drop by from time to time for a chat and (very often) lunch, but seldom for any business. Regina was one of the first true opera stars I ever got to know — though only a little — and quite possibly the first I ever visited in her home.

Regina was nothing if not regal. Did her parents know, somehow, when she was born, just what she’d be like as an adult? With her hair always perfectly coiffed and her bearing always upright, she spoke in low, rounded tones and an intimidatingly cultivated accent. Everything about her intimidated me, actually, and very often when she was about, I’d remember Scarpia’s line: “La Regina farebbe grazia ad un cadavere!” (The queen would pardon a corpse.) She might have made a good Scarpia, actually, though offstage there was nothing nasty about her at all, and really she was phenomenally gracious — like a queen.

For example, when I visited her and Arbit, she made a point of asking me about myself — and she also made a point of appearing interested in what I had to say. I was just learning that there’s no greater gift that a distinguished artist (or monarch) can bestow upon a young person (or subject), and if ever I get distinguished (or coronated), I’m fully resolved to do just what Regina did.

I never saw her onstage, though I knew her work from radio broadcasts and recordings. This surely helped to inspire awe in me: I’d look at her and know that, just below the surface, a volcano waited to erupt. That huge, dark voice was truly a force of nature — one of the few I’ve known that deserved that description.

In my presence, she never talked about her past triumphs: she was always focused on her current projects. I don’t remember these in detail, though the Venice Ghetto fascinated her, and at various times she organized exhibitions, concerts, and a documentary film on that subject. I sometimes had the feeling that, at that stage in her life, she was tying together all the elements of her culture: art and music and her Jewish heritage. That would have been a worthy effort in any case, and yet she made it seem even nobler.

Her association with the Weill Foundation brought benefits beyond the German cold cuts that I set out (in artistic arrangements, of course) at lunchtime. Harold Prince was a board member of the Foundation, and one day he told Lys Symonette that he would be directing a revival of Cabaret on Broadway. Did she have any suggestions as to who might take the role that Lenya created, Frau Schneider? “Regina Resnik!” Lys promptly answered. Prince might have come up with the idea independently, but Lys’ endorsement surely didn’t hurt, and Regina wound up with a Tony nomination in 1987.

For all the polish of Regina’s presentation, there were occasional hints at a wilder, more passionate side to her personality. After all, her portrayal of Carmen had to come from somewhere. And so, for the record, I note that she tended to take a very wide stance when she sat, as if her knees hadn’t gotten the message that she was a Great Lady. That’s among the reasons that I’ll remember this benevolent monarch with as much affection as awe. It was a privilege to spend time in her company.

AFTERTHOUGHT: On further reflection, I see that I’ve neglected to take note of Regina’s sense of humor, which was considerable. One day when she visited the Foundation, I greeted her with a “Reverenza!” in amateurish tribute to her Quickly in Falstaff. She laughed, and I felt indulged — until she responded with her own “Reverenza!” — whereupon I was intimidated again. That voice! It could knock you over.

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08 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein’

Celebrate! Susan as the Grand Duchess.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

There’s so much fun to be had in Santa Fe Opera’s new production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, once you get past a fatal flaw in the staging concept of director Lee Blakeley — so let’s get it out of the way. By transplanting this ultra-European gem to the United States, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, Blakeley makes the piece more immediate, but at the cost of the work’s darker underpinnings.

A fine essay (by Gavin Plumley) in the program explains that Offenbach’s operetta is not merely a fizzy trifle but a pointed satire. The rise of nationalism and militarism in Europe around the time of the premiere of Grand Duchess, in 1867, had important consequences, as France had seen already and was about to see again: the attempt by Napoléon III to set up a French empire in Mexico was crumbling; three years later, his adventurism in Europe led to the Franco-Prussian War.

While it’s true that jingoism is an apt enough equivalent of European militarism, and one which had dire consequences that the majority of Americans don’t seem to have considered at the time, it’s also true that nowhere in the U.S. would the headmistress of a military academy (if such a person existed) have had the power to send her pupils off to die in battle — as the Grand Duchess gleefully does.

Maybe Blakeley’s conceit would work, if this “Gerolstein” were one of those miniature steampunk empires that Jim West kept stumbling upon in The Wild Wild West — and I rather like the idea of the Grand Duchess as a feminized (and much taller) version of the diabolical Dr. Lovelace, with the power of life and death over her minions. But Blakely doesn’t carry the concept that far. Instead, he achieves the singular feat of making Offenbach’s operetta at once more immediate and more trivial.

Susan has this effect on me, too.

I hasten to underscore, however — you really don’t think much about this while you’re watching. Blakeley’s production is great fun, with often striking sets, costumes, and choreography; and it showcases a number of remarkable singing artists. With Emmanuel Villaume conducting a restored edition of the score, it’s a Grand Duchess to remember.

Leading the pack, of course, is Susan Graham, who from all appearances is having a high old time as the lusty Grand Duchess. Decked out in gowns designed by Jo van Schuppen, she lets loose an inner diva, imperious, capricious, and very funny. Watching her review her troops is like watching a very greedy little girl in a toy store, though there’s never any doubt that her intentions are grown-up. And she looks gorgeous.

It’s hard to believe this is the same singer who incarnated Berlioz’s Didon (at the Met) and Argento’s Tina (in The Aspern Papers in Dallas) just months ago. While she generally takes care to include comic numbers in her recitals, she seldom essays completely comic roles: one knows that her timing will be flawless, and that she’ll know just how far to go for laughs, but it’s a treat to see her construct an entire character.

Susan also sang Offenbach’s Belle Hélène here in Santa Fe, in Laurent Pelly’s production, in 2003. French repertoire is her specialty, of course, and since all the songs in Grand Duchess are performed in French (presumably because so many have only recently been rediscovered), she’s able to draw on her understanding of the language and her sensual delivery of the text. Ornamenting some lines and caressing others, ecstatic in her love of “militaires,” she sounds absolutely radiant — a far cry from the stereotypical, late-career Grand Duchess. This is a role debut for her; I’d like to think she’ll return to it often.

Ah! que j’aime les militaires!

One did wish that Villaume would rein in the orchestra a bit: at various points in the evening he drowned out all the singers. But he leads with all the verve one could want, and the restored material does a great deal to illuminate the characters’ emotional lives. The climax of Act II is like an explosion in a fireworks factory. Overall, the score is a testament to Offenbach’s seemingly inexhaustible melodic gifts, with effervescent, memorable numbers following in rapid succession — which Villaume certainly seems to enjoy.

In his reading of the score, you never wonder why Offenbach was so popular in his day, though I do regret that his operettas aren’t performed more often in the U.S. today. If things had worked out differently, Madeline Kahn might have made her debut with Santa Fe Opera as the Grand Duchess, in a staging by Charles Ludlam and a translation by Michael Feingold, in the 1980s. Maybe that would have given Offenbach the boost he needed.

In the present production, the young lovers, Fritz and Wanda (played by Paul Appleby and Anya Matanovicˇ) are among the prime beneficiaries of the restored material. Their duet in Act I is delightful, and they deliver gorgeous singing with surprisingly spunky characterizations — especially in Matanovicˇ’s case. Not least with her resentful glares directed at Susan, Matanovicˇ fleshes out an otherwise conventional type, revealing a steely resolve that suggests Wanda might make an estimable despot herself.

Appleby was a memorable Hylas in Troyens at the Met with Susan, and his Fritz is as lively as Hylas was dreamy. Few tenors in operetta can have thrown themselves into demanding stunts with the zeal that Appleby shows here — to the point that he injured his ankle. Hobbled, he keeps going, like an Energizer Bunny with high notes.

Paul Appleby as Fritz.

Kevin Burdette, as General Boum, is in a league of his own, kicking up his heels and performing gymnastic routines even while singing in a resonant bass-baritone; he’s equally at home in pratfalls and dialogue. Having seen his Archibald in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience at Glimmerglass and his Ogre in El Gato con Botas with Gotham Chamber Opera (among other roles), I knew he’d excel here. His command of the stage is complete, no matter how silly the business at hand. If this man isn’t working constantly, then there’s something rotten in the state of Opera World.

As his partners in crime, Baron Puck (here a Catholic clergyman, for some reason) and Prince Paul, Aaron Pegram and Jonathan Michie deliver their fair share of laughs, too, along with almost incongruously pretty singing. Michie’s physical characterization is especially fun: tall and rail-thin, he moves like a rubber band.

Partners in crime: Burdette, Michie, and Pegram.

A corps of eight dancers enlivens the stage at several points, with flips and an elaborate can-can at the close of Act II, and the cadets dance, too. In their uniforms, they’re indisputably — and quite appropriately — sexy. I note with pleasure that one of those cadets, Dan Kempson, steps forward in the small role of the Notary.

Though this production might have done more to make its satirical points, it’s certainly enough to take your mind off your troubles — and almost enough to take your mind off the inconsistency in the staging concept.

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 24. For more information and tickets, click here.

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07 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘La Donna del Lago’

Come to me, bel canto to me:
Joyce in Brigadoo — I mean, Santa Fe.
(That’s the real sky in the background.)
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera richly deserves its reputation for presenting rarely heard works in productions that are worth traveling to see: last season’s offerings included Rossini’s Maometto II and Szymanowski’s King Roger, neither of which had I seen onstage. This season features new productions of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, and a world premiere, Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde.

But it’s no longer entirely accurate to call La Donna del Lago a “rarity,” since recent seasons have seen it in Paris, London, Milan, Geneva, and now Santa Fe, with a Met premiere (in the Santa Fe production) on the horizon. At the center of all of these revivals has been one singer, Joyce DiDonato, and at this point we’d all be better off if we just faced facts, renamed the opera once and for all, and called it a repertory staple: La DiDonato del Lago.

Kill or be kilt:
The opera concerns fierce political divisions
about which audiences need know almost nothing.

Based on a novel by Walter Scott, the libretto doesn’t exactly inspire an audience to go back and read the book; it tells of an attempt to force a girl into marriage, against a backdrop of roiling political passions; it does at times recall Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, also based on a Scott novel. Elena, the heroine of La Donna del Lago, winds up with the man of her choice, and she doesn’t need a mad scene. That said, her final aria “Tanti affetti” (So Many Emotions), is a tour-de-force of bel canto vocalism. (I’d call it a showstopper, but it comes at the end of the show anyway.)

Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to see clips of Joyce singing this aria, and her interpretation continues to grow. With conductor Stephen Lord, she seems to have hit on something quite extraordinary in Rossini: it’s as if she searches for the right word, putting a break between “tanti” and “affetti”: “There are so many … emotions.” At first I thought she’d simply worn herself out, which would have been understandable. But no, she was up to something exceptional and expressive. As usual.

In any case there’s no substitute for witnessing a live performance, and I was dazzled by Joyce’s technique — right up there in front of me — as she delivered a profusion of trills and runs without ever losing sight of all those emotions. Elena is another of the roles that Rossini wrote for the mezzo who would become his wife, Isabella Colbran, but as I listen to Joyce, I have to think Rossini somehow knew what was coming, two centuries later, and wrote this stuff for her. When she sings his music, the notes may be popping out faster than the chocolates on Lucy and Ethel’s assembly line, yet each is a confection in itself, with its own flavor, texture, and color.

Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm.

Kevin Knight’s costume designs capture the spirit and variety of Auld Scotland, without being too pedantic about it, and Joyce looks lovely. (That’s something not all designers have been kind enough to permit her in stagings of this opera.) Knight’s set design impressed me less favorably. It moves well to change scenes — Elena’s cottage and King James’ throne room achieve just the right atmosphere through relatively simple means — but its fallback position is a sort of blasted heath better suited to Samuel Beckett than to bel canto, and with the ensemble forever charging on and off, it seemed crowded. Presumably the design will be expanded for the Met’s larger stage, but the Met will have to replace the Santa Fe backdrop — the open air and the dramatic skies that make it quite easy to imagine there’s a lake somewhere nearby, even when we’re really in the desert.

The libretto sets up a love quadrangle, as Elena is beloved of King James (or Giacomo, disguised as Uberto, sung by a tenor), the Highland chieftain Rodrigo (another tenor), and the fellow she loves, Malcolm (a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano). Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato looks nothing like a boy onstage — and I mean that in the nicest possible way — but she could be dressed as a giant bunny rabbit in this role and still win me over. The voice isn’t as deep nor the technique as eccentric as those of Ewa Podles´, yet there’s a familiar smoky quality coupled with spectacular agility. She hasn’t sung much in the United States, but given the audience response in Santa Fe, that could change very soon.

Larry and Joycee, together again.

Lawrence Brownlee takes the role of Giacomo/Uberto, and while it’s a good fit for his impassioned coloratura, his tone last night sometimes took on a harder edge than I’m used to hearing from him. (Ordinarily he sounds like melted butter, piping hot.) He’s got a wonderful rapport with Joyce, which makes me wish they’d have more opportunities to collaborate. In this case, their teamwork really helps to raise the dramatic stakes: you get the sense that these two might actually make a pretty good couple, were it not for the fact that a) she’s already in love with somebody else; and b) he’s her father’s enemy.

As the man her father prefers, San Antonio’s René Barbera sings with a bright, clean sound that slices like a scalpel through ensembles. And Wayne Tigges, as Elena’s father, Duglas (I’m not making this up, you know), offers a surprisingly sympathetic presence along with gusty, characterful singing.

Curran’s staging is full of good ideas and seemingly dedicated to making this fraught tale identifiable to those of us who are not caught up in Scottish tribal wars. I also admired the way that Giacomo’s ring, the most important object in the libretto, finds its symbolic counterpart in a little bouquet of heather that reminds Elena of Malcolm. Other ideas could use further work, notably the arrival of wise men (or wizards, or whatever they are) who prepare the Highlanders for battle. Bare-chested in blue bathrobes, they writhe about while painting the warriors blue — and eliciting a few chuckles in the audience, even while some of Rossini’s most serenely mystical music fills our ears.

Am I blue? The Act I finale:
Elena has Pict her friends wisely.
(That’s Dan Kempson standing at far right.)

Indeed, the score, composed in 1819, contains quite a lot of complex material, ahead of its time in many ways. The beautiful choral number that opens the opera, as the Scots greet the dawn, sets a standard for later Italian masters to rival, and the clear correlations to character and mood point the way to Verdi — even while refuting Wagner’s assertion that Rossini didn’t concern himself with such matters. I’ve begun to listen to this opera only since Joyce started to sing it, but I’m looking forward to the rewards of further study.

It’s a treat, too, to see members of my Fort Worth Opera community here in Santa Fe. The company’s Apprentice Singers program counts Dan Kempson and both Jonathan and David Blalock among its number, and in this opera, David gets a nice solo turn as Giacomo’s servant — or, as he puts it, “stealing the show from Joyce DiDonato.” Can’t blame a kid for trying.

With an added performance at the end of the season, La Donna del Lago continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 19. Click here for information and tickets.

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31 July 2013

Russia’s Treatment of Gays Not at All Like Nazi Germany’s, Putin Says

Russian President Putin.

MOSCOW -- Facing an onslaught of international criticism and threats of a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin today told reporters that recent measures restricting homosexuals and their supporters have been misunderstood.

“Everybody is talking about this as if we were the Nazis, criminalizing homosexuality and even banning speech in support of homosexuality,” Putin said. “This is not Germany in the 1930s.”

Under the terms of recent legislation, anyone suggesting that revered Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky was gay is now subject to fines and arrest on grounds of promoting propaganda. Gay or pro-gay foreign visitors are now subject to arrest and detainment for up to 14 days before deportation. These crackdowns on “nontraditional relations” are in no way similar to the Nazis’ treatment of homosexuals, Putin said, adding that thus far, no measure has been passed to require gays in Russia to wear pink triangles on their clothing.

“Homosexuals may walk freely anywhere in Russia,” Putin said, “so long as they don’t hold hands or, you know, skip or sashay or anything like that.”

Demonstrations like this one, in protest of anti-gay legislation,
put Russian homosexuals at risk, Putin said.

By statute and also in unofficial practice that has nothing to do whatever with conditions in Nazi Germany, gays in Russia no longer enjoy the right to assembly; civil authorities deny permits to Pride demonstrations, and against a backdrop of increasing numbers of homophobic attacks across the country, both Pride events and protests of the new legislation have been met with violence and police action in which the peaceful protesters themselves, and not their aggressors, were arrested.

“We do these things for the safety of all our people,” Putin said. “If an angry mob is attacking a homosexual demonstrator, the safest thing is to take that homosexual into custody. The proportion of police beating a demonstrator is much smaller than the proportion of a mob beating a demonstrator. While we Russians do not condone nontraditional relations, we do believe in a good, fair fight.”

Emphasizing his good intentions and his desire to improve Russia’s image abroad, Putin announced a new series of “vacation holiday camps” for homosexuals, mostly located in Siberia.

Gays will enjoy the rustic scenery, Putin said, in vacation camps so remote that “they can make as much noise — they can even scream — and no one will hear them at all.”

“Effective immediately, all homosexuals in Russia and their friends will be sent to these vacation holiday camps for a much-deserved break, free of charge,” Putin said. “Again, this is nothing like what the Germans did to their homosexuals. Special trains will transport the homosexuals and sympathizers in comfort to state-of-the-art facilities in tranquil, remote areas.

“We will treat our guests with the utmost courtesy,” Putin continued, “offering them special weight-loss diets and healthful activities. Housing will be co-educational, but you can’t have everything.

“Now can we please stop talking about the boycott?”

Just one of the many healthful activities offered at the camps.

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