Grand opera delights in the ‘bigger is better’ motto. However, often it is the attention to detail that really makes the work transcendent. Lyric Opera Baltimore‘s opening night of Puccini’s Tosca was a fascinating display of counterparts that all come together to create a taut stage production offering opportunities for Cavaradossi, Tosca, and Scarpia to shine. The keen eye and love of the art form that bursts forth from Director James Harp is clearly evident in this production.
Puccini did not write a prelude for Tosca. Three portentous opening bars introduce the Scarpia motif and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brass brought all of their explosive power to bear then and each time the motif was recalled always eliciting a bone-chilling effect. Puccini wrote Tosca as an opera of action. The pace is swifter and relies on smart, shorter motives throughout. Therefore, any performance of Tosca lives by the push-and-pull of the action. Jill Gardner, as the ill-fated Tosca, made full use of her force/counter-force proficiency whether loving and flirtatious with Dinyar Vania as Cavaradossi or terrified and vengeful with Raymond Aceto as Scarpia. In fact, during the Act I Tosca and Cavaradossi love duet “Non la sospri la nostra casetta” the playful back and forth between the two provoked abundant laughter from the audience especially at “Ma falle gli occhi neri!“
Gardner and Aceto’s stage presence was wholly opposite and in itself another counterweight to the sweet, humourous, and dedicated lovers. Aceto plays his Scarpia as the ultimate snake in the grass knowing exactly how to bait the jealous Tosca — “Quanto promessa nel tuo pronto sospetto!” (How much promise there is in your ready suspicion.) Aceto was able to change his vocal tone color to appropriately convey the differences between seeking Tosca’s affections and his blatant willingness to brutally violate her. Aceto, bathed in a sinister red spotlight at the end of Act I, sang ”Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” with terrifying intensity. The climactic moments at the end of Act II between Gardner and Aceto, however, were certainly moving but left something to be desired. While Gardner displayed a lovely warmth and enveloping sound in earlier scenes, she seemed to choose a much more defiant and straightforward approach to the illustrious “Vissi d’arte.” It had the impression of too much emotion in the voice while the “Mi vuoi supplice ai tuoi piedi!” that followed the aria was much more effective and not as overwrought.
François Loup as the Sacristan was such an inspired choice for Lyric Opera Baltimore given his ability to engage an audience from the very first movement he makes on stage (a sneeze under a blanket at that.) What M. Loup seems to instinctively understand is that every moment on stage is a choice. One does not need to make grand aimless gestures to be part of a grand opera. For all of Vania’s eagerness in the first scene, there was Loup to balance the actions and make it seem more believable. David Sadlier as Spoletta, Phillip Collister as the Jailer, and John Moses as the Shepherd Boy also added life and skilled singing to the production.
Steven White did not let the brass get away with having all the fun with Puccini’s score. He absolutely caressed some of the finely played lines from the woodwinds and strings – showing some real pathos in Act III. Finally the Lyric Opera Baltimore Chorus joined by the Maryland State Boychoir was incapable of being subdued in their fantastic “Te Deum” which was something of a feast for almost all of the senses with the incense from four thuribles spreading throughout the gorgeous set. Surely, it makes one look forward to hearing them in Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” in their spring production of Nabucco.
When it comes to Lyric Opera Baltimore, their vision of grand opera is not simply that bigger is better but that better is better. They are certainly an institution of which Baltimore should be exceedingly proud. Tosca is an opera of happenings and Lyric Opera Baltimore delivered a passionate and enthralling performance.
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM, CH (1913 – 1976) “At Day‑Close in November” op. 52 no. 1 from Winter Words (1953)
Performed by English tenor Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears CBE (1910-1986) accompanied by the composer.
At Day‑Close in November
The ten hours' light is abating, And a late bird wings across, Where the pines, like waltzers waiting, Give their black heads a toss. Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time, Float past like specks in the eye; I set every tree in my June time, And now they obscure the sky. And the children who ramble through here Conceive that there never has been A time when no tall trees grew here, That none will in time be seen.
Since we are celebrating Britten’s centenary during the year 2013, I thought it would be a fine way to embark on the month of November with this movement from Winter Words. I usually like to share video clips in which one can actually view the singer performing live but I simply could not choose any other singer than Peter Pears for today’s post. The other three movements from Winter Words: “Midnight on the Great Western” (or The Journeying Boy), “Wagtail and Baby” (A Satire), and “The little old Table” are also included in the recording. So, take a 10 minutes and 13 seconds out of your Friday to enjoy the whole thing. Here’s to a great and meaningful November!
“For me, more important than any place we depict onstage is the fact that these characters are all displaced. The action ranges all over a chaotic society… They’re [the main characters] like the runaway suburban kids you see in Times Square,” Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello is quoted in the program notes for the current production of Giuseppe Verdi‘s La forza del destino. In production at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. from October 12-26, I was fortunate to see the opening night (Oct 18) of the alternate leads featuring Amber Wagner as Donna Leonora, Rafael Dávila as Don Alvaro, and Luca Salsi as Don Carlo. In one of Director Zambello’s most bizarre productions with Washington National yet, the rarely performed Forza is chaotic but the musicality still finds a way to rise above all the stage action.
This production brings us two important Washington National Opera debuts with conductor Xian Zhang and soprano Amber Wagner. Chinese American Zhang is a natural choice to conduct the Verdi and she does so with great passion and at times ferocity. One of the unsettling elements of Zambello’s staging was placing the overture after Act I which changes Act I into a prologue. However, when Zhang leads the orchestra to that first iteration of the “fate motif”, beginning the overture, it has taken on new meaning for the audience. Kudos to Zhang and the WNO brass for making those three unison Es as ominous as possible. As early as “Me, pellegrina ed orfana“, Amber Wagner showed a commitment to dynamic range. Wagner’s “Madre, pietosa Vergine” was an experience in the sublime featuring the shimmering strings and well-balanced men’s chorus off-stage. She demonstrated a deep understanding for the balance of vocal power and radiant tone that sustains a Verdian soprano throughout an entire role. Only one wish would be that she spent less time clutching objects (such as her backpack) onstage during her arias so she could have stayed more open especially during her exquisite “Pace, pace mio Dio!”
Peter Volpe as the Marchese di Calatrava, although only in the production for a short amount of time, was able to attract the attention of the audience into the “prologue” with his stentorian bass. It seemed as though there might have been some tempo disagreement between Zhang and Dávila in the beginning that worked itself out through the production and settled into his powerful tenor during the Act III “La vita è inferno all’infelice.” Dávila and Salsi shared some compelling and brawny moments in this scene particularly in their “Solenne in quest’ora.” Salsi, occasionally, caricatured his Carlo to a point that read as over-acting. Although he found his most successful moments in the determined “Urna fatale del mio destino.” Enrico Iori as Father Guardino and Valeriano Lanchas as Brother Melitone added counterbalances to this Forza. Lanchas added much-needed levity to Iori’s strict presence physically and vocally. Finally, Robert Baker as Trabuco and Ketevan Kemoklidze as Preziosilla submitted admirably entertaining performances in the confusing and chaotic shipping container landscape of Act II.
Zambello’s unique approach to this production is appreciated but not found quite as successful as her other endeavors. However, she created the right elements for the leads to give solid and at times profound performances. I certainly hope that we will see more of Amber Wagner and Xian Zhang at Washington National Opera in future productions. Audiences have one more chance to see Wagner in the October 22nd performance. More information can be found at http://www.kennedy-center.org/wno.
Richard Georg Strauss (1864 – 1949) “Wiegenliedchen” from op. 49 (Acht Lieder) no. 3. (1900)
Performed by Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (b. 1972) and pianist Simon Lepper.
Bienchen, Bienchen, Wiegt sich im Sonnenschein, Spielt um mein Kindelein, Summt dich in Schlummer ein, Süßes Gesicht. Spinnchen, Spinnchen, Flimmert im Sonnenschein, Schlummre, mein Kindelein, Spinnt dich in Träume ein, Rühre dich nicht! Tief-Edelinchen Schlüpft aus dem Sonnenschein Träume, mein Kindelein, Haucht dir ein Seelchen ein: Liebe zum Licht.
Little bee, little bee
Little bee, little bee, Swaying in the sunshine, Playing around my little child, Humming yonder to sleep, Sweet face. Little spider, little spider, Shimmering in the sunshine, Slumber, my little child, Spin yourself to sleep Disturb not yourself. Rich little fellow1, Slip out of the sunshine Dream, my little child, Breathe into yourself a little soul: Love of the light.
I remember reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” long before I could have had an understanding for the work. Only after later re-readings and gaining some life experience did I come to appreciate the power of ‘story told through subtext’ or Hemingway’s “Iceberg theory.” Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon, ““If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”¹ When I found out that composer David Dies had recently written a chamber opera adapted from the short story, I had to know more. We had a chance to sit down (via the internet) and talk about “Hills Like White Elephants”, his other current work, and more.
In the Fall of 2013, several of David Dies’s works were featured in Anaphora’s performance on “Live on WFMT” in Chicago, including excerpts from his chamber opera, Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. His bassoon chamber concerto, edifis, was commissioned by eight renowned bassoonists throughout America and Australia, including Marc Vallon, Jeffery Lyman, Benjamin Coehlo, William Ludwig and Richard Stocktigt, and will be performed by each of them between 2012-2015. His music has been performed on three continents, notably in London, New York, Chicago, Lima, Peru, Lenox, Mass., Oberlin, OH, by nationally and internationally recognized performers, including those who performed on agevolmente, as well as soprano Catherine Verrilli, and guitarist Lynn McGrath.
American Record Guide observed that Dies has a “sensitivity to subtle shades of timbre, exploitation of spare textures…and predilection for a certain ceremonial austerity that evokes ancient, remote, or hieratic ritual” in a review of his 2011 Albany Records CD. The album features “excellent performances (ARG)” by pianist Christopher Taylor, sopranos Mimmi Fulmer and Judith Kellock, bassoonist Marc Vallon and cellist Jakub Omsky.
Upcoming performances include mezzosoprano Consuelo Sañudo singing excerpts from Hills Like White Elephants in Santa Fe, NM, and Trio Lorca’s performance of an arrangement for flute, percussion and soprano of his Reference (Collection): On Books & Libraries. Dies is also delighted to be working with the young musicians of Logan High School in LaCrosse, WI, this fall as they prepare his Sketches for String Orchestra.
David Dies is a composer, music theorist and educator currently living in Minnesota.
Congratulations on having excerpts of your chamber opera performed live on Chicago’s WFMT radio station recently. Your work “Hills Like White Elephants” is adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Tell us more about it. What inspired you about Hemingway’s writing?
I was drawn to Hemingway’s story for a variety of reasons. In some ways, the nature of the story sits in opposition to opera’s values: opera glories in grand expressions of a character’s emotion and motives, and often hinges on intricate plots and surprise twists (The Marriage of Figaro, all of The Ring, Rosenkavalier…) Hemingway’s story is famous or infamous for the action being carried almost entirely in the subtext and for being almost inscrutable–many readers aren’t exactly sure what happened in the story when they finish it. This leaves it open to multiple interpretations, which is a quality also rarely encountered in opera. Part of why opera works for its audience is that it signals specific responses and thus specific interpretations, even so far as people standing on cue when the Good Friday music is played in Parsifal.
But as I worked with the story, the similarities, or its suitableness for adaptation, to opera started to become apparent. The characters are nameless–man, girl, woman–and I think this anonymity makes them archetypes. Even the plot is archetypal, in its way: It’s a conversation that’s been had countless times throughout the history of humanity. And archetypes have been central to opera since its founding. Further, the kind of focus Hemingway’s prose demands of a reader, where every word can feel deeply significant, isn’t that different from the weight given to even a pedestrian sentence in conventional opera. So while Hemingway’s text can be read as “every day speech,” his use of language isn’t all that far from what opera does best.
Exactly — “Hills Like White Elephants” is an extraordinary lesson in Hemingway’s use of the theory of omission – the way the message of the story is presented through subtext and never laid plain. Tell us more about what that was like to compose with that in mind? Were there any specific operatic conventions that were in conflict with how you wanted to tell the story?
Yes, as I described, I chose the text for these very reasons. When I was composing it, there were a few things from the story I wanted to convey. First, I wanted to make it very clear that something was not being said. So, to compose that into the music, I left long spans of instrumental music between the man and girls’ lines, typically about 3-4 measures. Second, I wanted to give a sense of a deep ‘undertow’ to the music, both to help give the music direction and to bring across the sense that the plot was happening in on some unspoken level. So, I carefully controlled the amount of time between each of those utterances, being sure that the gap between them got a little shorter every time, to propel the action in an almost subliminal way. I also hinged the piece on a cycle of key centers, so that motion forward is articulated in fairly conventional shift of keys “forward.” Finally, to help communicate the sense of the unspoken, after the climactic line ‘I’ll scream’ from the girl, I gave the mezzo-soprano a vocalise, but the vocalise is a setting of a poem which I then removed. The orchestral accompaniment is written to align with the emotions of the unheard poem, which helps further articulate that there is something unavailable to the audience churning under the surface.
I didn’t find any opera conventions directly in conflict with my goals. Both the man and girl, in fact, have arias. The man’s first aria is a kind of toe-tapper, which is when he finally breaches (or re-breaches, more likely) the subject of the story: ‘It’s really an awfully simple operation….’ So it’s a kind of sales pitch, which seemed to call for an appealing, ‘catchy’ tune. The girl’s aria aligns with her desire for the situation to be different, ‘And we could have all this…’ which is another kind of classic aria. Both of their arias are broken up by dialog, which I found a little tricky, but the breaks in someway recall the long instrumental ‘pauses’ I had started the opera with. If anything there’s no ‘big finish,’ but that convention has been rendered optional by Pelleas and by the minimalist operas, so I didn’t feel pressured to include it.
One of the conventions you wanted to use was the concept of a Greek chorus. In this case, the female bartender in the story was conceived as a “wordless Greek chorus.” Had you thought about making that character more involved? In Hemingway’s story, Jig’s inability to speak Spanish with the bartender helps to further isolate her. How would you approach the Greek chorus concept without a shared language?
This question raises so many different aspects of the adaptation. First, the girl’s inability to speak Spanish, which really does isolate her further. In the opera, I wanted to “mark” the passages that were in English, but standing in for Spanish. I lit upon the idea of imitating ‘la voz afilla’—the rough singing style associated with flamenco. Rather than asking the singers to learn this challenging vocal style, I double the tenor (MAN) and the mezzo (WOMAN) at pitch with English horn which turned out to be a pretty good timbral match.
I did think about expanding her role, but I felt any alteration I might make could undermine the qualities that drew me to the Hemingway story. My approach to the adaptation was “first do no harm.” I translated one paragraph that involved describing a transaction between the man and the barmaid into a two-line exchange. The rest of the dialog is taken directly from the Hemingway.
As for the “wordless Greek chorus,” it actually occurred to me after I had finished the opera that that’s what I had done with the barmaid’s character. My sense of a classical Greek chorus have several roles in a play. They are often the vehicle for the emotional response to the action as often as they are commenting or moralizing about the actions of the characters. So the wordlessness of my barmaid aligns her more with the emotional role than the moralistic one, and therefore a shared language is unnecessary—the emotion she expresses/evokes is more for the audience than for the couple. It also occurs to me that one of the qualities I liked about the story was its ambiguity: not only does the action happen in the subtext, it’s also unclear what the outcome is. This ambiguity is translated into having a third of the opera have no words.
You started working with Chicago-based classical ensemble Anaphora last year, how did you all come to find each other? Was it specifically your chamber opera that drew you together? What other projects are you working on with the ensemble?
As Cory Tiffin, the artistic director of Anaphora, and I were becoming friends, he saw that I had adapted Hemingway’s story to a chamber opera. He was very excited, and told me that it was his favorite Hemingway story. So, the friendship came first and the collaboration second.
Because Anaphora was only able to do the excerpts from the opera this fall, we do have plans to do a concert version of the whole opera sometime in the future, with some discussion of it happening as early as next fall. We’ve also talked about me developing some instrumental-only work with them, specifically focusing on using instruments to ‘filter’ and distort the timbres of other instruments. This would build on some of the effects I’ve used in my recent bassoon chamber concerto, edifis, which will be performed this year at the University of Michigan by Jeffrey Lyman.
Yes, in fact, there is a consortium that is currently touring your chamber bassoon concerto. Can you tell us more about that process? What were some of the interesting elements of working with a consortium of high-level musicians?
The consortium is actually a group of different high-level bassoonists who will independently present the chamber concerto with their own ensembles. It was premiered last November by Marc Vallon in Madison, WI. Marc was responsible for putting together the consortium, in which each player chipped in a very affordable fee and agreed to perform the work. Once the performers were in place, I wrote it, consulting mainly with Marc on specific extended techniques and other technical issues for bassoon.
The best part of working with musicians of that calibre is that it really freed me up to ‘dream big.’ The first movement for instance is a unison movement with the four strings playing mostly rapid melismas made up of ‘suppressed’ contrapuntal lines as well as the main melody, which is always played by the bassoon. This ultimately stretched my notational ability, as the melismas are unmeasured, but have to happen within a fixed duration. (So they’re somewhere between grace notes and tuplets.) The second movement was the first time I’ve been able to realize a long-standing idea of mine: a collection of miniatures that can be scattered, in any order, throughout the rest of the concert, or played (in any order) together as a central movement. I think of it as an exploded idea of “betweenness.” And without the ability and intelligence of these players, I wouldn’t have been able to realize these concepts.
Finally, how did your new arrangement of Ravel’s “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques” for specific instruments including: flute, oboe, clarinet, viola, cello and mezzo-soprano come to pass? Where did you start with such a well-known work?
This was an arrangement done specifically for Anaphora and Julia Bentley. We really were looking for something to tie everyone together and I thought it would be easiest to arrange something from Julia’s repertoire. She had just performed the Ravel, and it really stood out to both me and Cory as the best candidate for an arrangement.
Because Ravel’s orchestration is so rich, the method of arranging it was largely driven by practicality: how do I translate it for so lean an ensemble? And when not everything from the Ravel could be carried over, what could possibly be dropped? So, I started with Ravel’s piano reduction, which gave me a clear sense of what he felt was essential, where he saw ‘give’ in the orchestration, etc. So, for instance, the marvelous harp runs halfway through the Kaddish are just 32nd notes that strictly ascend, but in the piano part, Ravel often makes them dectuplets that change directions in an overall movement upward. So, the gesture for Ravel seems to be about “ring” and “ascent,” not a specific, rigidly defined line. And with our association of klezmer with Jewish culture, it seemed natural to move these lines into the clarinet, until they drop the octave and move into the cello. Similarly, in the middle of “The Eternal Enigma,” there are some dissonant lines very quietly added by the cellos which I translated into some viola double stops, very subtly shading the second line of the quatrain ‘And one might answer, Tra-la-la-la….’
Wow, a huge thank you to David Dies for sharing his time and thoughts with us! I hope you will all check out his website – singers, do not miss out on his vocal/chamber music. Have a question about his interview? Leave us a comment below or share your thoughts on twitter (@mezzoihnen – #6QsRE) or on our Sybaritic Singer Facebook page.
Hey friends, adding to the abundance of bad news that has been floating around recently, it has been a rough couple of weeks for opera as well. If you have made it to this small corner of the interwebz then I do not need to rehash those news stories. However, there has also been a glut of sarcastic responses running on reputable sites. But, what if you sat down today and actually wondered how you could help your local opera company? What if you were well-aware of how a local opera company can affect a local economy and wanted to help secure that future? What if you couldn’t give a s&*^ about opera singer fat jokes and just want to help your neighbor make a living in the area in which they are incredibly skilled? What then?
For those of you who have an ounce of interest in a culturally literate population or you give a passing care to a vibrant arts economy – here’s a starting point.
From your computer:
- “Like” and “follow” your local opera companies. Pay attention to their upcoming events – bonus points for when you write them down in your own calendar!
- Share and retweet their upcoming events even if you cannot attend.
- Forward their e-blast to a friend who might be interested.
- Singing in a production? Don’t leave it to the marketing team only to spread the word. Tell people why you love doing what you do. Others want to participate in your success. Give them as many opportunities as possible.
- As a musician: celebrate your colleagues’ successes! Spread the news that opera is alive and often doing well across the country and around the world.
- Participate positively in the comments section on reviews. Encourage inspiring discussion about the art form we love.
- Buy a ticket. Buy a few tickets. Buy a bunch of tickets.
- Donate. Chances are your local opera company is working on a fundraising campaign at this very moment.
- Watch a cat video > feel warm fuzzies > remember that opera makes you feel good feelings too > donate online to your local opera company.
- Encourage your family members in discussing music. Demonstrate an understanding that opera isn’t just a joke genre used in bad annuity commercials.
- Support music lessons for your family members. An understanding of musical concepts will help lower the boundaries to classical music.
- Support music education in your schools and greater community. Music education is everywhere – K-12 formal education, outreach programs offered by your local opera company, Opera on Tap at your favorite bar – support as you can.
- DVR your shows and make some time to go out and experience live performance!
- Make plans to attend a performance at your local opera company as a family event. You might even start a new tradition!
In real life…
- Go to the opera.
- Donate to events such as silent auctions.
- Encourage your business/company to put an ad in the program.
- Put your own ad in the program.
- Offer to hang a poster at your office or business location.
- Host a fundraising event at your home.
- Volunteer. Be an usher or be on the board or anywhere in between but offer your abilities!
- As a board member: be a stickler about financial well-being!
- As a musician: offer your highest musicianship at every opportunity. You are an integral part of making sure the performances are of the highest calibre.
- Talk about your local opera company. When you are at the dog park, when you are pushing your kids on the swings, when you’re having a martini at happy hour, when you’re discussing weekend plans with your coworkers – there really is not a bad time to inspire others to give opera a try.
Like I wrote above, this is just a starting point. Perhaps you’d like to add more positive suggestions on ways to participate in the health and well-being of your local opera company? Share them in the comments below or by tweeting me @mezzoihnen or on the Sybaritic Singer Facebook page.
Since I took an unwitting break from Repertoire Fridays over the last few weeks, I brought you the beginning of this three song cycle from Alex Weiser. Please click-through to tell him how much you enjoyed it and to see the other two videos from Mellissa and Lisa’s beautiful performance.
Alex Weiser “Marks” for Soprano and Piano (2013)
Performed by “postclassical siren“ Mellissa Hughes and collaborative pianist extraordinaire Lisa Moore.
Text by Laura Marris
Music by Alex Weiser