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April 13, 2007

Transformations: An Opera That Excites the Senses

Thirty-four years ago, May 5 1973, Conrad Susa’s first opera Transformations based on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Sexton enjoyed its world premiere in Minneapolis under a commission from the Minnesota Opera. On April 12, 2007, The Dresser much impressed by Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Transformations wonders what she was doing the day of Transformations’ premiere.


Soprano Kara Morgan as Witch/Anne Sexton
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

She knows that even if her old journal had something as miraculous as this opera noted, the Dresser was just a young poet working by day as a computer analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor on jobs for the poor, the under-educated, those down on their luck and the Poet, not yet known as The Dresser, was far removed from the world of opera.


However, in her collection of books, she still has Sexton’s Transformations, which she bought new in the early 1970s in paperback copy priced at $2.95 and with an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, who just died April 11th and who wove science fiction, philosophy and jokes into his novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, said in his intro of Sexton’s very grim modern day retelling of fairytales that Sexton “domesticates my terror, … teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, and then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.”


What’s really clear is no matter how this chamber opera written for eight singers and eight instrumentalists is interpreted, the audience is in for a wild ride. Looking at the list of numbers provides part of the reason why.

Act I

I. The Gold Key - Our need to understand ourselves.

II. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - The ambivalent relationship of mother and daughter.

III. The White Snake - The divine madness of the artist.

IV. Iron Hans - Our ambivalence toward the insane.

V. Rumpelstiltskin - The Doppelgänger inside all of us.

Act II

VI. Rapunzel - The need of older women for
younger women.

VII. Godfather Death - The fear of death and desire for death.

VIII. The Wonderful Musician -The demonic power of music.
A musician uses his talent to injure and deceive a fox, a wolf and a hare but escapes punishment by further use of his powers.

IX. Hansel and Gretel - Mother love and cannibalism.

X. Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) - The ambivalent relationship of father and daughter

In Susa’s opera, as in Sexton’s poem “The Gold Key,” Anne Sexton is a character opening or commenting on the various fairytales.


The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me…


The poems making up Sexton’s Transformations provide a vivid window into the life of a woman of enormous talent who also had severe problems that included insomnia, substance abuse, suicides attempts, incestuous contact with her daughter, and frequent stays in mental institutions for her bi-polar disorder. In October 1974, she committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning produced by allowing her car to run inside her closed garage.

Whereas the first production of Transformations was set in a mental institution with inmates playing the various roles, productions subsequently have taken other approaches. Maryland Opera Studio director Pat Diamond has set his production in the adult playground of the disco era with its jumpsuits sporting bell-bottomed pants and the overhead glittering mirrored disco ball. This scenario allows for the small orchestra to be on stage and for minimal props and sets. Given the varied musical styles employed by Susa and his predilection for compositions that suggest the conga, beguine, samba, tango, fox-trot, habanera, Diamond’s disco setting works quite well. The Dresser who is partial to jitterbug and Lindy Hop always did think the disco scene was quite a mad kind of dancing, what with all the flailing of arms and boring beat of its music.

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April 21, 2007

The Cruelty of Armide's Beauty

Love ruins a woman’s power base. In the baroque opera Armide composed by Willibald Gluck and based on Philippe Quinault’s libretto, Maryland Opera Studio and University of Maryland School of Music director Leon Major has taken this timeless theme to the theatrical bank by updating this work set during the era of the Crusades in the year 1099. Major does this through minimalist sets


Armide (Adria McCulloch) circles the captured Renaud (Eric Sampson)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

and well-tailored costumes. The Dresser enthusiastically applauds the sexy, familiar-to-today costumes by Martha Mann that include Armide’s laced-up-the-front-and-back bodice that presented her breasts as if they were ripe fruit, Armide’s red silk robe that slips from her milky shoulder to reveal a lacy bra, and the buttery, leather-looking pants that many of the men characters and La Haine (Hate) wear.


Models of the scant clothing and undergarments of the American retail chain Victoria’s Secret pale against Major’s casting of Adria McCuloch as Armide, the sorceress who falls in love with an enemy leader. Not only can McCuloch ably interpret the lush baroque music, but she also pulls eyes out of their sockets with her gorgeous body made more so by Mann’s costumes. Major plays up what Hidraot, Armide’s magician uncle, calls the “cruelty of Armide’s beauty” by first presenting Armide with her laced-up back turned to the audience. When she turns, jaws drop and eyes pop.


The magician Hidraot (Darren Perry) convinces Armide (Adria McCulloch)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver


The two-hour opera divided into five acts and 23 scenes develops the story of Armide vowing to vanquish Renaud, the leader of the Crusades. Immediately, she tells her friends Phénice and Sidonie that she has had a nightmare that predicts she will fall under the charm of Renaud and that he will end up killing her. Added to this augury is her uncle’s wish that she marry and produce heirs. When her uncle’s army captures Renaud, Armide asserts she will kill Renaud. However, as she wields the knife over the sleeping Renaud, she realizes that her attraction to him is so strong that she cannot kill him. Even when she evokes La Haine to help her, she still cannot end his life.


La Haine (Tara McCredie) guides the hand of Armide (Adria McCulloch)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

Thus Renaud’s comrades Artémidore and Ubalde are given time to rescue Renaud, which isn’t easy because Armide’s spell is strong. The opera closes with Armide cursing her love for Renaud and knowing she will die without his love.


While Adria McCuloch April 20, 2006, performance as Armide is world class, performances by Eric Sampson as Renaud, Tara McCredie as La Haine, Alexandra Christoforakis as Phénice and Mélisse, and Stacey Mastrian as Sidonie and Lucinde are accomplished. The Dresser found the performances of Gran Wilson as Artémidore and Michael Mentzel as Ubalde somewhat odd as if they were trying to assert themselves both in their singing and acting as commedia dell'arte characters, but could not quite fit themselves into that style. The Dresser thinks Renaud’s saviors could actually go more to the comic side with good results.

Opera Lafayette Orchestra under the passionate conducting of Ryan Corrick Brown added to the emotional mother lode of Major’s well-considered production. Brown’s period instrument ensemble is dedicated to performances of 17th and 18th century operas and they specialize in the French repertoire. Often the Opera Lafayette Orchestra collaborates with The New York Baroque Dance Company.

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April 26, 2007

Jenufa, A Good Girl in Big Trouble

The Dresser understands that most Americans do not see themselves enjoying theater communicated in a language with which they have had no experience. Jenufa (pronounced yen-new-fa)


by Leos Janácek (lay-osh yä-'ne-chek') is an opera best sung in Czech, the language in which Janácek wrote the libretto based on the play Její pastorkyna (Her Stepdaughter) by Gabriela Preissová.


The astute operagoer will calmly observe that surtitles have removed language barriers from the current day opera experience. Still, as director David Alden said on April 24, 2007 during a news roundtable organized by Washington National Opera to promote Jenufa,


people have a hard time motivating themselves to go to an opera where “you can’t pronounce the name of the opera or the composer.”

Impetuously, the Dresser, who once spent two weeks in Prague, asked soprano Catherine Malfitano, who is playing Jenufa’s stepmother for a third time in Alden’s award-winning production and who was very passionate about singing Jenufa in Czech, “mluvíte chesky?” When she returned a completely puzzled look, the Dresser, not wishing to one-up or offend, quickly translated, “Do you speak Czech?” The answer was “no,” of course. Furthermore, none of Alden’s cast is Czech or speaks Czech. However, the conductor Jiri Belohlávek is Czech and this makes a huge difference to the singers because Belohlávek understands Czech phrasing and therefore knows when to give the singer more time to produce the Czech words.


Also, there is something more to the importance of singing Jenufa in the original language. Janácek keyed the writing of his libretto to something he called speech-melody (napevky mluvy). Here the Dresser whispers in the reader’s ear about the word mluvy, which clearly translates to the English word speech as in “mluvíte [speak] chesky?” Janácek spent years collecting speech melodies which included a range of odd utterances from a woman calling her chickens to the last words and sounds of his dying daughter Olga to whom Jenufa is dedicated.

Malfitano added that the Czech script for Jenufa contained no wasted words. This the Dresser interprets in Poet Speak as every word counts and has weight, that Janácek cut out dead words and predominately used nouns and verbs, shunning superfluous connectors and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Apparently English translations of Jenufa contain dead words that disturb the flow of speech-melody.


A Czech journalist in the news conference audience offered that Janácek wrote Jenufa in the Moravian dialect, which is a particularly mellifluous and poetic form of Czech. The journalist wanted to know if he could expect to see some of the nuances of the Moravian dialect in the surtitle translation. Christina Scheppelmann, Director of Artistic Operations and WNO General Director Plácido Domingo’s right hand, fielded the question by saying that not only are surtitle translations condensed, but the translation also depends on the director’s interpretation of the work.


The Dresser does not know if any of the discussion thus far would convince language-shy audience to come hear Jenufa, winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best new Opera Production, but she herself is eager to see Patricia Racette again. Racette played a similar role in the 2005 Metropolitan Opera premiere of An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker with a libretto by Gene Scheer. An American Tragedy is also about a small town girl who becomes pregnant by an immature and cavalier young man. The Dresser expects that Racette, who played the lead role in Alden’s first updated production of Jenufa, has perfected this kind of character—she knows how to play the good girl in big trouble.

In the April 24 news conference, Racette said that the difference between Jenufa and Roberta (in An American Tragedy) is that Jenufa had no option for an abortion and so her emotional state is much more desperate.


Patricia Racette as Jenufa pleads with Raymond Very as Steva
Photo Credit: Washington National Opera

Added to Jenufa’s situation, which her stepmother is hiding by saying the girl has gone away to another town, is that the half brother of the father of Jenufa’s child is jealously in love with Jenufa. His frustration turns ugly and he slashes Jenufa’s cheek with his knife, making her that much less appealing to Steva, the father of her child. On the other hand, Roberta from Picker’s opera refuses to have an abortion and ends up drowning when her lover Clyde takes her row boating and does not save her when she falls out of the boat.

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About April 2007

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in April 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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