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July 21, 2009

The Beggar's Opera: Maazel's Own Brand of Mendicants

Swan.jpgLorin Maazel's gloriously green estate in the rolling hills of Rappahannock County, Virginia, was alive with operatic zest for the July 16, 2009, performance of Benjamin Britten's The Beggar's Opera. Although the Dresser arrived hungry, only to learn Châteauville's chef had seriously sliced her finger which closed down the alfresco café, the feast of taking in the maestro's menagerie--Emus.jpga flock of gawking emus in an enclosed landscape of dense ferns and pond complete with a prima donna swan and the exotically colored camels located in a paddock just beyond the art gallery hung with views of Virginia's rural inhabitants and habitats more than distracted the Dresser's appetite. Besides, her companion, composer Janet Peachey, had taken the precaution of packing carrot sticks and bing cherries, which she shared as well as her knowledge about how to find Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel's 550-acre home, a property that, in rush hour, is over a two-hour drive from the upper northwest section of Washington, DC.


Much to Ms. Peachey's surprise, The Beggar's Opera was being performed in a huge tent and not the state-of-the-art Theatre House. This, however, is not to say that the theater experience was diminished by this arrangement. Au contraire, the tent was fully air-conditioned, the raised stage was raked tipping it toward the orchestra pit and audience, also the stage extended in a catwalk around the pit and there were numerous trapdoors in the stage and catwalk to allow surprise entrances and exits by the cast. While most of the audience seating was arranged in counter-raked tiers in front of the stage, there was also box seating for some audience members built atop the side walls of the stage and these audience members seemed to take on a role as not just observers but judges of the play's proceedings.

Atop the back wall of the stage, cast members--usually the chorus--occasionally made appearances. One particularly memorable appearance included some of the female cast, partially hidden by the protective wall, presenting themselves as just shoes and legs in an earthy sex scene. Yes, Dear Readers, this was total use of the space with cast making entrances from unexpected doors at the top of the audience risers and along the same paths that audience had followed from the lobby to get to their seats. The Beggar's Opera2_Vale Rideout.jpg
Photo of Macheath (Dominic Armstrong) with Lucy Lockit (Sarah Moule) and Polly Peachum (Julia Elise Hardin) by Vale Rideout

And the cast, particularly Dominic Armstrong in the leading role as the womanizing highwayman Macheath, worked the audience, taking up seats on the risers and in the boxes, making eye contact, and Macheath actually drew to the catwalk a young woman sitting in the front row. Even the intermissions had theatrical contact as t-shirts were sold out of the saddlebags of two large llamas that didn't mind being surrounded by curious audience members.Llama.jpg


The Dresser suspects that most theatergoers have had more experience with Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera (premiered in 1928) for which Bertolt Brecht wrote the libretto (in German) based on a translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (premiered in 1765). Certainly for the Dresser, Benjamin Britten's 1948 adaptation of John Gay's groundbreaking piece (first ballad opera, an opera without recitative, an opera focused on thieves, whores, and the poor versus gods or emperors) had to compete with her intimacy with the Weill-Brecht opera. Britten's music is based on a reinterpretation of the popular British tunes of the 18th century that Gay selected but were arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. While the Dresser (a.k.a. The Steiny Road Poet) was recently deeply excited by the Washington National Opera production of Britten's Peter Grimes, she wasn't entirely tuned into what was Britten and what was the old folk music. Mostly she decided that what was the melody line was the old music and what was texture, rhythm, and inflection was Britten. That said, the variety of musical styles included jigs, jazz, ornamented arias, bluesy ballads. Clearly a musical feast enhanced by Britten's masterful handling.


Particularly appealing was the intimacy achieved between orchestra, Maazel as conductor, the players, and the audience. Two examples that stick in memory are Macheath addressing a quote from Shakespeare ("If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On") directly to the harpist and Macheath proclaiming "I must have women" to which Maazel turns to the highwaymen and says "I know."

Continue reading "The Beggar's Opera: Maazel's Own Brand of Mendicants" »

July 22, 2009

Fade: State of the Art Versus Green

For as much as the Dresser would like to see every new American opera that comes to the stage, the commitments of daily living, particularly family events, often compete for the same schedule. Because the Dresser had been following the mounting numbers of productions for Stefan Weisman's and David Cote's Fade--there are now four that were presented in Philadelphia, London, San Francisco, and New York, she was eager to learn more about this 30-minute opera and therefore sent dramaturg Maxine Kern to hear the work. Here's what Ms. Kern had to say about Fade.


On July 17, 2009, Stefan Weisman's one-act opera Fade written with librettist David Cote was performed at Galapogos Art Space in Brooklyn. The work, developed in a 2008 libretto workshop by AOP (American Opera Projects) tells the musical story of an increasingly strained relationship between a young couple who are moving into a new state-of-the-art house in the country. Their relationship fades as their dreams and plans for the house come into conflict and end in disappointment. This realistically depicted story achieves larger dimension when dreams are sung by AmyvanRoekel.jpgGertie, the wife (soprano Amy van Roekel), and Hays.jpgAlbert, the husband (Jonathan Hays), and countered by cautionary musical inflection in the singing of the housekeeper (mezzo Pamela Stein) who sees the flaws of this anachronistic edifice and wants only to get home as soon as possible. pamelastein.jpg

The character of the music changes as the three people realize their positions and come to terms with the house itself. The new house, a six-bedroom summer home, replaces Gertie's grandmother's old mansion. At first the housekeeper sings with rich, carefully chosen words and she is addressed with sweeping romantic dialogue, mostly expressed by Jonathan Hays as Albert, with his strong and flowing baritone. The dialogue itself creates suspense immediately, questioning everything. What is the housekeeper's name? What is in the boxes that are collected in the house? Are there still ghosts here from the old house that has replaced the new? The housekeeper, a young woman alone with two children, muses about whether she would like to live in a big house like this one miles from town and tucked into the woods.

For a short while, humor surfaces in the face of suspense and questioning as the wife grounds the conversation in contemporary concerns about eco-friendly values, which get short shrift in this outsized mansion. The husband engages the housekeeper in a friendly contest to dismiss these concerns about too many rooms. The music does a fine job of pacing the delivery of these arguments in overlapping and ongoing dialogue. When the subtext between the couple overwhelms them into dismay, the music fills in for deliberate gaps in their singing. As such the music continues the original building of suspense, this time by indicating an underlying emotional tension, which chokes up their dialogue.

After that, the dialogue and the music allow for arias and contrasting sounds and rhythms. The wife's arias are sweet, romantic and soaring, taking on a Straussian quality; the husband's, perfunctory yet strong. The suspense is diminished, even as lights in the house go out. At this point, the composition tries to regain its original storyline about what will happen, yet also reflecting the fading of the couple's energy and their mutual but discordant disappointment. The continuo, a repetitive musical style in the manner of Philip Glass which has maintained an underlying presence throughout the piece, takes prominence, but it lacks color and becomes monotone. With diminished emotional energy concluding the opera, Fade lacks the musicality in the end to maintain the richness of the musical storytelling initiated at its beginning. While this follows the theme of an overly strained relationship, it also runs out of steam musically, which disappoints and disengages this listener from the story and the operatic experience. The challenge here is to have the relationship fade while keeping the audience attentive and involved.

Continue reading "Fade: State of the Art Versus Green" »

July 29, 2009

New Opera: Then the Hammer Explained

New opera is always an adventure with risk. Sometimes the critic best serves a new piece by staying silent. This situation happened for the Dresser recently when she traveled to New York City to see a new opera by a composer whose work she had experienced before and, while the first opera was not particularly her favorite cuppa, it showed well. Not so for the second.

At Santa Fe Opera, The Letter by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout premiered Saturday, July 25, 2009. The Dresser has been keen to see it, but other trips and commitments have gotten in the way. By Monday, July 27, not so enthusiastic reviews of The Letter started to surface. Here's what Teachout had to say in his AboutLastNight blog on July 28, 2009:

"Needless to say, not everybody liked The Letter as much as the first-nighters who cheered us to the echo. My old colleagues at the Washington Post, for instance, published a scorched-earth pan on Monday, the thrust of which was that Paul and I should take up another line of work. I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but I believe I can stand the heat. I ought to be able to: after all, I've been dishing it out for most of my professional life!"

The Dresser notes: so far, no word from The New York Times, the major arbiter of what is worthwhile in the world of classical music. And maybe there won't be a Times review.


Recently, the Dresser attended two operatic productions of the Capital Fringe Festival. On July 18, 2009, she saw the Opera Alterna production of Magnum Opus by Michael Oberhauser and on July 19, by composer Douglas Boyce based on a libretto drawn from Federico Garcia Lorca by Jodi Kanter. Neither opera took the top of the Dresser's head off, but each had some commendable aspects.

First, one should understand a bit about the sponsoring group and festival. A nonprofit group named Capital Fringe supports the Capital Fringe Festival. The festival began in the summer of 2005 in Washington, DC. It takes its lead from the Fringe movement that began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. The idea is to promote and support artists who may not have other outlets. Capital Fringe encourages artists to self-produce in their annual July festival of the performing arts. So, in fact, Fringe offerings are often workshops as opposed to premieres. Artists can enjoy the opportunity to try out their new works in usually less than adequate theatrical venues but without fear of being slammed by the critics.

That said, both Magnum Opus and The Girl Who Waters the Basil were not artists flying solo. Opus was produced by the DC-based Opera Alterna that has ties to Catholic University (as does the composer who wrote this opera for his CUA master's degree) and Girl was mounted with the help of a grant by George Washington University (the composer is a professor there). Opus was enjoying its second production (according to Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post, Oberhauser premiered Opus in February 2009 at Catholic University) and Girl, its first, but from the program notes, one could ascertain that Girl was being workshopped.

Both operas deal with sexual attraction--young man pursuing young woman. In Opus, the story revolves around a singer named Claire who is married to a blocked playwright named Robert but she is being pursued by a composer named John. The framework of the Opus story is a modern-day telling of the love triangle between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. In The Girl Who Waters the Basil, a prince falls in love with a peasant girl who spurns him after he initially disguises himself as a peddler and trades grapes for her kisses. When she refuses to see him, he becomes so love sick that he cannot leave his bed.

Musically, both operas are tonal. Opus takes it lead from the music of the real life Robert Schumann and at times, Oberhauser's music seems more derivative than original. Opus2.jpg
Robert (Tad Czyzewski) being seduced by the Greek Muse Melpomene (Daniele Lorio). Photo by Nickie Brock

Nevertheless, Oberhauser has created some beautiful ensembles like "We will whisper to you," an exchange between Robert (sung by Tad Czyzewski) and Schumann's muses Melpomene (sung by Daniele Lorio) and Polyhymnia (sung by Tricia Lepofsky). Boyce's music for Girl exhibits more dissonance and vocal demands than Opus but also tends toward numbing repetition.

What made Girl particularly impressive was the talent that came together for this 40-minute "pocket opera" that was initiated in mid March of this year. Playing the prince was tenor Robert Baker, who has sung more than 300 performances with Washington National Opera. In the role of the Shoemaker: world-class soloist baritone James Shaffran (over 40 appearances with Washington National Opera) and in the role of the Shoemaker's daughter: coloratura soprano Rebecca Ocampo. While opera, particularly in the old world tradition, has tended to put the best singers on stage instead of the most visually appropriate, the Dresser found that it was hard to pretend that Robert Baker was suppose to be a young man. The Dresser kept thinking that Cory Davis who played the prince's page looked more age appropriate to be wooing the girl watering the basil.girlwhowaters.jpg
(L to R) Rebecca Ocampo (Irene), Robert Baker (The Prince), and Cory Davis (The Page) in The Girl Who Water the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince, 2009, Capital Fringe Festival (photo by Douglas Boyce)


It's no secret that the Dresser (a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet) admired Michael Oberhauser's student compositions and agreed to help him write a libretto for what turned out to be Magnum Opus. However in the end, the composer decided to write the libretto himself and consequently took a hit for that in Midgette's review. Was Opus, despite its premiere (the Dresser suspects this was the master's degree production and should that production be called a premiere?), ready for a prime time review in a major newspaper?

Continue reading "New Opera: Then the Hammer Explained" »

About July 2009

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in July 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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