What brings audience to the opera house? Is it fair to discuss a repertory classic with a brand new opera? Because the future of opera depends on its audiences, this writer is willing to breach what is politically correct by discussing together recent productions of Giochino Rossini's L'Italiana In Algeri, which premiered May 22, 1813, in Venice, and Lowell Liebermann and J.D. McClatchy's Miss Lonelyhearts, which premiered April 26, 2006 in New York City.
FIRST SOME COMMENTS ABOUT SCALE
Washington National Opera, a company that Plácido Domingo has elevated to national prominence with world-class artists, ended its 50th anniversary season with a surefire opera hit—Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of L'Italiana In Algeri. This production with its stunningly beautiful sets and costumes is owned by the Metropolitan Opera. In a press roundtable discussion held May 2, 2006, David Kneuss who directed WNO's recent production said that the late Ponnelle who began his career as an architect got every detail right in L'Italiana. "Ponnelle tells the story through his scenery and moves the singers with the music. Vibrancy flies right though L'Italiana In Algeri," said Kneuss. Moreover, a star-studded cast featuring the captivating mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and the bel canto Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who is being tapped as the new Luciano Pavrotti, make the production a must-see.
At the other end of the spectrum, Julliard School of Music celebrating its 100th anniversary commissioned and presented Miss Lonelyhearts, the world premiere opera of its triple-degreed graduate Lowell Liebermann. Using video projection and minimal scenery, Ken Cazan, who according to the Julliard program notes is "considered to be one of American's foremost [Benjamin] Britten opera directors," selected an able cast who were either affiliated with or currently studying at the Julliard Opera Center. An eye-catching staging device suggested by McClatchy in his libretto puts all the people writing to Miss Lonelyhearts behind screens that are lit from behind.
This reviewer found the libretto of Miss Lonelyhearts confusing and the music, with its violin and flute orchestration that steadily seems to ascend in pitch, uncomfortably sharp like an unresolved scream. And granted, the protagonist of Miss Lonelyhearts is a tortured soul, music that tortures the listener without illuminating the story is likely to diminish future audience attendance. Although there were a few lyric interludes such as the pastoral scene in the country where Miss Lonelyhearts escapes his job and tries to relax with girlfriend and the dance scene where Miss Lonelyhearts is trying to seduce the wife of his boss, these musical moments of relief seemed out of step with the over-riding compositional intention.
THE REQUEST TO PLAY IT AGAIN
What's on the table here?—an opera with a long history of success in a smash-hit production backed by significant financial and artistic resources from a commercial theater company featuring celebrity singers playing to a 2300-seat house versus a first production of a brand new work by an academic theater company featuring mostly student singers playing to a 1000-seat house. The question is how does a new opera become a repertory favorite? Obviously something about the work bears repeating.
The development of a new opera must depend on workshops where segments of this opera-in-development are tested before live audiences who are then invited to stay and talk with the opera collaborators. Afterwards the collaborators confer, rework and stage new workshops to gather more feedback. Given today's cost of producing an opera, even at a low budget scale within an academic institution, one has to step back and ask if Miss Lonelyhearts was tested in its early stages before a helpful but hopefully discriminating audience?
WHAT'S THE BACKGROUND?
In 1813, Teatro San Benedetto of Venice commissioned Rossini, a wunderkind who at the age of 20 had premiered six operas in the year 1812, to alter Angelo Angelli's libretto, which had already been set by composer Luigi Mosca. Rossini wrote his version of L'Italiana In Algeri in 27 days. This opera buffa, which has been performed frequently in Europe and the United States, is known for its catchy overture.
The story of L'Italiana involves a Moslem leader—bey Mustafà—who has grown tired of his wife Elvira and declares he must have an Italian woman. Conveniently, a shipwreck produces Isabella (Olga Borodina) who is on a quest to find her lover Lindoro (Juan Diego Flórez). Lindoro is being held captive by the bey. With the help of Lindoro and her hopeful admirer Taddeo, Isabella conquers the smitten bey by inducting him into the Italian order of Pappataci, an absurd invention meant to distract the bey and facilitate the escape of the Italian captives. When Mustafà realizes the ruse, he rushes back to the appreciative arms of Elvira. What the music of this opera does best is showcase the vocal agility of the lead singers. Contemporary opera does not usually employ this style of singing.
Poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy was the catalyst for turning Miss Lonelyhearts into an opera. First he developed an artistic relationship with Lowell Liebermann and then he figured out how to get the rights to Nathaniel West's celebrated novella, a story that independently interested both composer and librettist.
Living in an era where opera commissions are extremely difficult to obtain, Liebermann in his mid 40s counts Miss Lonelyhearts as his second opera.
THE POLITICAL FREIGHT
Like L'Italiana In Algeri, Miss Lonelyhearts is a two-act opera that deals in our day with politically freighted subject matter. L'Italiana portrays a Muslim leader who is not only duped and made foolish looking by a Westerner but a woman at that. Although Miss Lonelyhearts has an absurd and potentially comic element—Nathaniel West said it was "a novel in the form of a comic strip," McClatchy and Lieberman lean heavily on the idea that the man acting as the columnist Miss Lonelyhearts is a martyr to his job. The opera libretto revolves around three couples: Miss Lonelyhearts and his girl friend Betty, Miss Lonelyheart's sadistic boss Shrike and his provocative wife Mary, and a Miss Lonelyhearts fan Fay and her crippled husband Doyle. Moral responsibility and ministering to the downtrodden interplay with sexual recklessness and misdeeds. Miss Lonelyhearts while obsessed with Christ and compassion is just as likely to participate in acts of gay bashing, adultery with his boss' wife, and abuse of his girlfriend who eventually tells him she is pregnant with his child.
Unlike L'Italiana In Algeri, Miss Lonelyhearts is an emotionally complicated story that has potential to resonate meaningfully with men and women living in the 21st Century. Suspecting that the librettist and composer assumed their audience knew Nathanial West's story as well as they did, this reviewer who had never read the story went to the original text to see if she could fill in the gaps created by the opera. Some of the questions that arose in seeing the opera included: Who was Shrike—Mephistopheles (when he first comes out on stage he wears a red satin robe) or just a pervert that Miss Lonelyhearts had the misfortune to work for? Was Miss Lonelyhearts in the closet about his sexuality—did he beat up the old man who was gay because he (Miss Lonelyhearts) was hiding his own sexuality? Who were Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing, the scientists mentioned during the bashing of the old man who was referred to as Naughty Nancy and our Lady of the Public Toilets? Why were the reporters working with Shrike and Miss Lonelyhearts so vulgar that they joked about raping women, particularly women reporters. Was this a story about sentimentality, that is, false emotional pain, or real suffering? Liebermann's music indicates unmitigated visceral suffering.
The original text made it clear that Miss Lonelyhearts was a heterosexual man who alternated between being compassionate as part of his fixation on Christ and trying to contain the rage caused by his deep-seated despair. Sex with women was how he sublimated his anxiety. McClatchy has Miss Lonelyhearts say early in the first scene, "Jesus Christ! The dough of sentimentality stamped with a heart-shaped cookie knife. These letters! How do I answer?" West's original text reads, "And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife."
This brings up the question of how much liberty is allowed the librettist in interpreting an original text? What if McClatchy chose not to include reference to Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing, European psychiatric doctors who studied and wrote about deviant sexual behavior (maybe in Nathaniel West's day these men and their work were more widely known) or if McClatchy made it clear who Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing were relative to the story of sexual perversity? Given the liberal adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata by composer-lyricist Mark Adamo and the success of Adamo's second opera Lysistrata or the Nude Goddess, one would have to say that whatever works within the landscape of the adaptation is exactly the extent of tolerance for change. When Rossini first aired his version of L'Italiana In Algeri, the critics initially said it was a crude remake of Mosca's opera. People generally are slow to accept change, even when the change is an improvement. Nevertheless, the choices a librettist makes also sets the tone for the music. If the libretto does not present a clear plan for how its story will unfold, then the music will suffer.
Was it a waste of time and resources to see Miss Lonelyhearts? No, because a person studying the process of writing operas will always learn something new. Between Miss Lonelyhearts and L'Italiana In Algeri which would be better for a young person eager to experience his or her first opera? This is hard question to answer because classic repertory often does not inform us about the world as it exists today. L'Italiana In Algeri is fun and flashy but not substantive. Even with its flaws, the opera Miss Lonelyhearts leaves an indelible impression and makes a person reflect on the state of people's behavior today.