Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Great Scott! Skyrocketing bel canto in The Dallas Opera's world premiere of Jake Heggie's latest opera

Artists in the rehearsal room for Rosa Dolorosa in Great Scott
Maybe, just maybe, the art of bel canto singing can skyrocket in the context of contemporary opera. Great Scott, The Dallas Opera's formidable new commission of Terrence McNally's story and libretto, with music by Jake Heggie, certainly makes it possible.

In the manner of Rossini and others, Heggie employs bel canto composition in the service of a fictional never-performed long-lost opera score, for which fictional opera star Arden Scott is determined to make a success of during a triumphant return to her hometown. Her discovery of the 1835 work Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, by fictional composer Vittorio Bazzetti, makes for a fascinating story, one which centres around various corridors of American Opera (seemingly representative of American opera companies and the risks they face). In it, we get a peep at the behind-the-scenes chaos, its assortment of temperaments and the intricacies that drive artistic passion. Great Scott is amusing but not a comedy, its clever, sometimes indulgent and a tad poignant. It's also a work of geodesic-like interconnections, a confident work with its own uniqueness and, for its world premiere, a stellar cast gave it a remarkable outing.

In Act I, American Opera is rehearsing Bazzetti's work and Joyce DiDonato, for whom the role of as Arden Scott was created, sings to impress. While seemingly at play with her voice, DiDonato catapults the art of coloratura, singing with unbounded joy through highly expressive vocal shifts with rich textures and a fountain of effervescence. Doing so, she aims her sling-shot fun at ballsy co-star and diva-hungry Uzbekistani (or thereabouts) Tatyana Bakst, spectacularly sung and bubbly acted by Ailyn Pérez. If that's what opera singers are doing in rehearsal, an audience needs to hear more of that on the stage in modern opera. Even though it's trepidatiously employed for a fictional opera, Heggie seems to have opened the door for bel canto, giving it modernity like never before as part of contemporary storytelling.

Nathan Gunn and Joyce DiDonato
Much is riding on the success of American Opera's Rosa Dolorosa. It's a risky operatic venture that mimics the travails and excitement of risk-taking choices, much what could mimic The Dallas Opera's initiative in staging Great Scott.

Heggie's musical brew even seems to root the story in the geographic epicentre of the USA, gratefully writing an overture that begins with a sprawling sense of space and uncluttered beauty. Later, with rousing brassy Sousa-like pageantry, American football and patriotic fare is celebrated. It feels very much like it starts in Dallas for which conductor Patrick Summers demonstrated the music's strength with an overtly tempered ardour.

The bel canto premiere has to compete with Super Bowl on opening night and everybody is hopeful of a victory for the Grizzlies. In the end the Grizzlies lose but Rosa Dolorosa succeeds, even though for Scott it is accompanied by thorny issues to deal with on a personal level. Scott reconnects with an old flame, architect Sid Taylor, sung with broad muscularity by Nathan Gunn. And though written for her, Scott loses out to Bakst for the title role of a new opera, Medea Refracted. Her dressing room becomes steeped in poignant reflections on love, loss and success, and all the while the tattooed DiDonato gives her both classy sassiness and modern believability.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade
The three-hours over two acts can feel too long in its first viewing. Outside the bel canto style, the vocal line rises naturally off the music. McNally makes them understood with a casual, uncensored language of today though occasionally the unexpected humour falls on an nonreactive musical line and a few icky lines make an attempt to cover every possible modern dilemma. The audience needn't be told "the world needs food, health, peace and beauty."

Director Jack O'Brien evokes real-time sensibility and ease, supported truthfully with simple but functional modern rectilinear spaces, minimal trappings and day-to-day streetwear (but rather drably robed Pompeian streetwear for Rosa Dolorosa) by set and costume designer Bob Crowley. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design adds realistic edge while Elaine J. McCarthy's projection designs do service to creating a football stadium and opera theatre within the confines of the stage.

The opera-within-an-opera scenes sometime feel like filler, gorgeously sung as they are, but the artists of the company endear and their performances stick memorably. After another settling orchestral opening for Act II from Heggie, "The Star-Spangled Banner" gets an amusing take from Bakst. If the audience stood for Pérez's botched up but vocally searing rendition, it wouldn't have been surprising. As Winnie Flato (Artistic Director of American Opera), Frederica von Stade makes a solid return to the stage and her opera company, with her opening night post-performance speech after Rosa Dolorosa able to bring tears.

Kevin Burdette, as the conductor Eric Gold, portrays the one eye on music and the other on stage manager Roane Heckle with bland appeal. Then doubling as the ghost of Bazzetti, Burdette gives powerful weight and commanding vocal dimension to the supernatural in what could have been a blundering insertion to the opera. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is perpetually shining as the ever hard-working, loveable and hip Roane Heckle. As the good-natured tussling tenor and baritone pair Anthony Candolino and Wendell Swann, Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes deliver a complimentarily entertaining act and young Mark Hancock courageously overcomes the demands of the stage with shouts of "Vesuvio sta per scoppiare" as Sid Taylor's son though his skateboarding across the opera-within-an-opera stage in Great Scott's final moment bemused.

Ailyn Pérez as Tatyana Bakst singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"
With Rosa Dolorosa brought to the stage, it's hard seeing it become the success it was but that's part of the amusement. Opera, like all the arts, is a difficult medium to gauge presumptions about how its audience will respond. But for Great Scott, its gift is very much its ability to get under the skin, a wanting to analyse its raison d'être, its highs and lows and intricate structure. With three world premieres of works commissioned by The Dallas Opera alone this year, a winning formula prevails and with it, the sense that opera and Super Bowl can comfortably coexist for seasons to come.

Production photos: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

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