I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2013 Fort Worth Opera Festival. While the company has been in existence since the late 40’s, their recent history has been marked by a successful decision to move from a traditional season to a concentrated Festival schedule. The Festival calendar is a boon to out-of-towners like me, as it allows a visitor to see all four of the season’s operas over a long weekend.
The Festival was implemented by the Opera’s dynamic Managing Director, Darren K. Woods. He has also been instrumental in programming a number of regional and world premiere works which share Festival time with more standard repertoire. These new productions have resulted in greater national and international visibility. Their new Opera Unbound series will feature chamber works in smaller venues.
The main performance venue is the stunningly beautiful and built for comfort, Bass Hall in Downtown Fort Worth. Designed in the style of classic European opera houses, with numerous box seats, the hall seats a couple thousand, but feels relatively intimate.
This season’s Opera Unbound production was the regional premiere of GLORY DENIED by Tom Cipullo which was performed in the McDavid Studio, across the street from Bass Hall. The opera is based on Tom Philpott’s oral history of Colonel “Jim” Thompson, the longest held POW in American history. A tag line like this would lead one to expect a claustrophobic and introspective piece—perhaps even a monodrama. But the reality is much more comprehensive. This is not only the story of a single man’s heroism in the face of incomprehensible odds, but the collateral damage inflicted on the family of that man. And, by extension, all the families caught up in the turbulent and questioning cultural landscape of America in the 60’s.
The opera’s narrative conceit utilizes a Younger and Older Thompson and a Younger and Older Alyce, the wife who sits not-so-Penelope-like at home. Their intensely personal stories unfold in a riveting and compact 80 minutes in which snapshots of his 9 year imprisonment and his eventual homecoming are dramatized in a non-linear, semi-poetic style.
Cipullo’s score is gritty, vigorous, and as dense as the conflicting emotions it portrays. Still, he finds moments of lyricism and even a few full-scale arias in the second half. Both musically and dramatically it is reminiscent of Bernstein’s TROUBLE IN TAHITI, that other incisive look at the dissolution of a mid-century American marriage.
Director Dean Anthony has wisely opted for a stripped down setting which puts the raw emotions front and center. Anthony trusts the text and his performers, grounding their movement in what is appropriate for the moment and eschewing too many “look at me” directorial touches. However, he does use one visual concept to telling effect. Paper proves crucial in their lives—the letters they share, the days of the month torn off a calendar, the pile of magazines in which Older Thompson discovers how much the world has changed during his incarceration. All of these pages are used and then discarded, leaving the stage littered with a chaos of paper. It is an eloquent metaphor for the detritus of two lives that have drifted irrevocably apart.
The Singers: David Blalock and Sydney Mancasola as the Younger Thompson and Alyce and Michael Mayes and Caroline Worra as their older selves create memorable characters and sing the English text with exemplary diction. Blalock summons an edge to his essentially sweet tenor for the torture and interrogation scenes, but he warms that up for his memories of the wife and the life left behind. Mancasola, playing the idealized wife, has the least complex character, but she brings charm and an appealing, bright soprano to the role. Mayes and Worra are true stage animals who fully inhabit their characters' frustrations and disappointments. Mayes’ forceful baritone bitterly rails against a world he cannot comprehend in a list aria which, interestingly, mirrors a similar list in the then cutting edge musical, HAIR. And to hear Worra’s guilty but determined attempt to explain her actions to her husband on his return is a master class in vocal acting. Their scenes are the heart of the piece and occasionally the emotions seem so raw and the situation so vulnerable that it feels as if the audience is a voyeur. Conductor Tyson Deaton brings precision and sensitivity to his small orchestra.
ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS might be the most schizophrenic opera in the standard repertoire-- which is half of its fascination. Using his knowledge of backstage life, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal devises a witty satire on the battle between the lofty ideals of pure Art and the pragmatic reality of putting on a show.
In Hofmannstahl’s backstage Prologue, a naively idealistic Composer has been hired to write an opera for a patron’s party. His opus is a possibly pretentious treatment of the myth of Ariadne, deserted by her lover and longing for death on her desert island. The Major Domo informs him that, in order to accommodate a fireworks display the patron has arranged, the opera must be trimmed and performed simultaneously with a troupe of commedia del arte performers who have also been engaged. Zerbinetta, the troupe’s leader, is philosophical about the adjustment, but the Composer is horrified. That is, until he weighs the notion of never hearing the work performed and agrees to the compromise. The Second Act reveals the opera in all its incongruity. Balancing these dichotomies and calibrating the proper mix of slapstick to sumptuous music are the decisions that any director of ARIADNE must make.
Director David Gately has chosen an approach which honors both humor and romanticism, though the humorous touches work best. He has encouraged the performers in even the smallest roles to develop idiosyncratic characters which spring vividly to life. Thus William V. Madison’s hilariously supercilious Major Domo and Ian McEuen’s jaded Dance Master are truly memorable performances. Also doing sterling musical and physical work are Anthony Reed, Steven Eddy, Zak Engle and Michael Porter as the male members of the commedia troupe.
Still, as with most Strauss operas, it is all about the ladies, and Fort Worth has chosen them well. Cecelia Hall proves an endearing composer whose graceful mezzo and rapturous tone could truly convince you that music is a holy Art. As with many productions, Audrey Luna’s Zerbinetta is a well-deserved audience favorite. Of course, her second act scena, espousing her generous philosophy of love, is a famously showy display of coloratura fireworks. But Luna pushes beyond the thrill of her sparkling and seamless vocalizing to highlight the thematic core of the piece and contrast it with Ariadne’s glorification of lost love. As the Diva playing the titular Ariadne, Marjorie Owens commands a sizable soprano with surprisingly dark undertones. She easily conqueres Strauss’ vocal challenges and finds no problem cutting through his dense orchestration. The same could not be said for Corey Bix, her Bacchus. Underpowered and adrift in what is admittedly a punishingly high tessitura, Bix signals his discomfort by constantly shifting his weight.
Designed for Utah Opera, Robin Vest’s scenic design economically brings a touch of baroque luxury to this traditional production. Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes and Steven Bryant’s makeup and wig designs are allowed a greater degree of theatrical whimsy. In the pit, Joe Illick marshals his forces for Strauss’ moments of grandeur, without losing a hint of comic élan.
Is Puccini’s LA BOHEME the most frequently produced opera in major houses? I have no hard data beyond my opera-going experience, but only Mozart’s MAGIC FLUTE springs to mind as a possible rival. BOHEME’s popularity is easy to understand. Audiences delight in its gorgeous melodies, its succinct tale of young love and its heartbreaking end. For opera companies, the appeal is just as obvious—it’s a genuine audience-pleaser, it features a young cast, which allows for the hiring of up-and-coming singers with moderate price tags and, oh yes, it’s a masterpiece.
Director David Lefkowich decided not to tamper with a sure thing and helms a traditional production in which the story of the bohemians could unfold without overt directorial comment. Sean Panikkar’s ardent Rodolfo displays an attractive lyric tenor and an understated way with the histrionics. As his Mimi, Mary Dunleavy sings with a transparent sensitivity which enhances the character’s fragility, while her acting makes the encroaching disease believable. Wes Mason’s virile baritone brings power and sex appeal to his lovable, puppy dog take on Marcello, while Rosa Betancourt’s Musetta avoids the musical pitfall of shrillness in the role and also sidesteps the dramatic trap of overplaying the character’s mercurial nature. John Boehr is an engaging and exuberantly boyish Schaunard whose warm baritone shows promise, but it feels a little small for the house. Derrick Parker's Colline is serviceable, with a dry, constricted sound.
R. Keith Brumley’s sets, originally designed for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, are attractive and detailed enough to require a second intermission for the set change before the final act. Conductor Joe Illick elicits a passionate and energetic performance from the orchestra, though the Chorus in the second act had some trouble finding the downbeat.
THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT
For years Donizetti’s FILLE DU REGIMENT was occasionally trotted out for star coloratura sopranos looking for a change of pace. The story of Marie, the young tomboy raised by the regiment, who falls in love just as she finds she is actually an heiress provides physical comedy, romance, and enough vocal pyrotechnics to satisfy both the Diva and her audience. When Joan Sutherland revived the opera in the late 60’s, a young Luciano Pavarotti astounded the world with his effortless rendition of “A! mes amis” and its 9 high C’s. Suddenly the opera became a much more equal partnership between soprano and tenor.
Fort Worth has produced this Nineteenth Century confection in the Ruth and Thomas Martin English translation. This choice makes the spoken dialog (FILLE is an opera comique) easier for the performers and the comedy more immediate. It also makes the work’s position as a proto-operetta quite clear. Director Dorothy Danner has chosen to present a traditional production which, thankfully, didn’t burden the piece with topical references. Or, indeed, any semblance to reality. This is the only way a soufflé like this works.
Ava Pine’s Marie displays a brash and vivacious personality, a sparkling vocal sheen with pin-point precision, and a pretty impressive cartwheel. But, while she is absolutely at home in the knockabout comedy and showy passage-work, it is in the quieter moments that she truly impresses with her heartfelt singing. Marie’s lover Tonio is not called on to do much beyond singing with sweet fervor, hitting those C’s and waiting with patient loyalty for the moment when he wins the girl. David Portillo manages all of this with grace and a brightly focused tenor. Rod Nelman is a sturdily sung and sympathetic Suplice, sporting an Inspector Clouseau accent and terrific timing. But the real comic laurels must go to the veteran performers-- Joyce Castle’s dizzily imperious Marquise de Birkenfeld and Darren K. Woods (yes, the Managing Director) as her hapless servant Hortensius. Whether haughtily shouting orders, praying to the Virgin in her own unique fashion, or sharing her inimitable vocal warm-ups, Ms Castle is a constant delight. Knowing that Castle was going for the grand gesture, Woods wisely has chosen to underplay his moments, making them all the funnier. The program doesn’t name the non-speaking performer playing Marie’s erstwhile bridegroom, but his hilarious dumbshow is something I will long remember.
Boyd Ostroff’s sets are functional and attractive while Beni Montresor’s costumes clearly delineate the characters. Conductor, Christopher Larkin finds surprising complexity in the score, and his detailed reading of the overture, in particular, is masterful.
I would urge anyone who loves opera to visit Fort Worth Opera Festival. The artistic decisions are interesting, the talent is strong, the venues are terrific, and the audiences are the friendliest I’ve encountered.
Fort Worth Opera Festival April 20 – May 15, 2013 www.fwopera.org