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Padrevia, Heart in a Bloody Cup

Thomas Pasatieri's name may not be a household moniker but it should be for those who attend new opera and current day film. The Dresser stands in awe of his record--twenty-two operas and film orchestrations that include: American Beauty, The Little Mermaid, The Shawshank Redemption, Fried Green Tomatoes, Legends of the Fall, The Scent of a Woman, and others.


padrevia.jpgOn July 24, 2010, the Dresser attended the last performance of Opera Alterna's Capital Fringe Festivalproduction of Padrevia, a one-act that Pasatieri premiered in 1967. The story is drawn from Boccaccio's Decameron and is a tale about a possessive father named King Tancred who is keeping his beautiful daughter Gismonda in isolation at Castle Padrevia. She despairs over her father's attention and is lonely for a suitable companion. She considers taking her life and asks the new gardener Guiscardo to compress poisonous leaves that she will carry in her amulet until such time that she can no longer stand to live. While he does what she asks, Guiscardo convinces her to live and they fall in love. When the jealous father discovers them, Guiscardo is executed and his heart is delivered to Gismonda in a royal court chalice. She mixes the poison from her amulet into Guiscardo's blood, drinks the lethal cocktail, and dies. King Tancred hardly blinks a tear but falls on his daughter's body to kiss her passionately. It's a compact story that suits opera well. In Pasatieri's opera, an actor narrates and three singers enact the tale.


To date, the Dresser has also seen productions of other Pasatieri operas, including The Women (a one-act premiered 1965) and Signor Deluso (a one-act premiered 1974). She has also seen excerpts done in New City Opera's 2006 VOX showcase of Frau Margot (a three-act opera premiered 2007). What the Dresser knows from experiencing these productions (three out the four were produced by Opera Alterna) is that the neo-romantic music of Pasatieri requires subtle interpretation, particularly in the soprano parts. Having heard the outstanding soprano Lauren Flanigan sing excerpts from Frau Margot in the 2006 VOX showcase of new operatic work (she was also the soprano who premiered the work for the Fort Worth Opera in 2007), the Dresser has tuned her ear to the standard set by Flanigan. While Daniele Lorio, who sings the role of Gismonda, is a capable performer--the acting for her death scene was horrifically absorbing, Pasatieri's music does not seem suited to her capabilities. Even so, there were notable bits of vocal performance that the Dresser enjoyed, including her duet with tenor Siddhartha Misra (Guiscardo). Misra's entire performance was impressively good. Baritone Tad Czyzewski as King Tancred gives a suitable performance as does actor Chris Dwyer doubling in the role of narrator and guard who delivers the bloody heart.

To be fair to Opera Alterna and its artistic director Jay Brock who has a theater not an opera background, the Dresser finds it exceedingly adventurous that this small company has gained the cooperation of such a prolific composer whose work one would not ordinarily be exposed to. Working with the resources provided by the supporting contributors to the Capital Fringe Festival (Padrevia was produced in the Mead Theatre of Studio Theatre, one of the better venues offered to the Capital Fringe Festival) also presents significant challenges. For example, the entire set of five performances of Padrevia was done with an out-of-tune piano. What were Brock's and his music director Jeffry Newberger's options? The Dresser knows that this theater company, like most small performing arts companies, struggles financially. Even if they had a sugar-mommy/sugar-daddy, how easy would it have been to immediately schedule a piano tuner and how well would the tuning have held for that particular instrument (after all, not all pianos are created equally)?

The bigger question for the Dresser was how did the singers manage? While standing around the kitchen of a friend's house last night, the Dresser got into a conversation with a musician and a multi-arts performer. Both veteran performers know the rigor of showing up at an unknown venue with little time to correct deficiencies in the resources provided. Neither the musician nor the singer-dancer thought it was unusual that singers for a low-budget theater production had to put up with a miserably out-of-tune piano. They both said essentially the same thing--each performer has to figure out whom to rely on and do the best he or she can to stay true to the intention of the creative work. The Dresser gets this and understands that a different standard has to be applied in such a situation. Maybe what the Dresser realizes from this casual conversation is that it is possible to create a memorable performance, such as the one Siddhartha Misra managed to achieve, regardless of flawed resources.

Leslie McGrath equates hunger of the stomach with sexual appetite in her poem "How to Wolf a Cook." While the poem spins from MFK Fisher's book How to Cook a Wolf and plays with the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, there is an element of cannibalism that links this poem to Padrevia. In the case of King Tancred, he ends the opera literally feeding off his daughter's lips while she has consumed her lover's blood. Both poem and opera speak to the corruption of innocence.


Prepare the mise en scène: lower the lights
and pour from her slim-necked carafe a half glass
of something chilled, astringent. Now let
your ravening gaze travel her nether-curves
as she spoons the stew or ladles the soup
into a shallow bowl and dresses it
with thyme she's torn from the stem.
You notice her thumbprint in the biscuit
as you bite down, a bit of gristle buried
in a chunk of lamb, the potatoes
neither raw nor soft, but to the tooth.
She's in your mouth, wrestling
your tongue into an admission
of hunger--no, need--you'll speak
her words, your breath scented of her resin.
And once you've polished her off, toe to toque,
you'll wipe your trembling mouth on her red cloak.

by Leslie McGrath
from Opulent hunger, Opulent rage

Copyright © 2009 Leslie McGrath

Photo: Nickie Brock


Comments (3)

Margaret Harrison:

I was hoping for a little lighter subject matter on a sweltering summer's evening, and the quality of voices was good, considering the resources available, as you wrote (when you mentioned Lauren Flanigan, it definitely seemed her type of role, and those singers come along only once in a generation). But I thought they did right by the work. Funny, the piano tuning didn't bother me, guess I got used to it. And in this weather, you'd probably have to tune it just before each performance.

It sounded like there was a lot of 12-tone writing in the work to me, did it
to you? Also, the mood and intensity of the work brought to my mind
Strauss's Elektra.

The Dresser:

Dear Peggy,

According to my seatmate Janet Peachey who is a composer as opposed to me -- I am a poet and librettist, it's hard in this piece to tell if there is 12-tone writing in this work. It's clear that the tonal is mixed with dissonance. Because of the time frame when it is written, it's quite possible there are some 12-tone passages since that was the rage at that time.

Another thing to know is that pianist who apparently is quite talented was trying to compensate for the out-of-tune piano.

You had me at the opera's title! What a deliciously grand gesture: AH, who dies like that anymore? All the pith of a Shakespearean tale yet downsized for present day appetites. Thank you for comprehensive review.

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