Opera Review

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat, 29 May 2005, with permission.

Summer, in the world of concert music and opera, is usually a time of lighter, "pops"-oriented fare and a relaxed atmosphere. At institutions with large and prominent opera programs, such as Florida State University, the summer is also the time for directing students to stage productions of one-act operas as part of their academic programs. Because these projects are often the first time these students are in charge of a full production, the operas mounted and the productions themselves frequently are at least a little outside the mainstream.

This was the case at FSU's double bill of Leonard Bernstein's domestic dramedy Trouble in Tahiti and Luigi Dallapiccola's totalitarian nightmare The Prisoner on Friday and Saturday evenings at Opperman Music Hall. The operas were chosen by the directors, Tracie Pope (Tahiti) and Tal Shahar (Prisoner), independently, but the evening as a whole provided an unsettling view of two very different, and very modern, ways of being trapped.

Sam (Evan Jones) and Dinah (Melissa Vitrella) are no longer communicating. In an attempt to avoid their problems, they decide at the end of the opera to go see the new film, Trouble in Tahiti, which Dinah already saw that afternoon. A trio (Christopher Diaz, Lisa Kotara, and David Margulis) comments on their life like a chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Ms. Pope's staging was inventive and engaging, though I found the mugging of the stagehands as they moved the scenery superfluous and distracting. An instrumental trio (Music Director Elizabeth Blood, piano, Sergio Acerb, bass, and Dave Cochran, percussion) provided lively accompaniment. Krista A. Franco's scenery rendered the '50s suburban milieu subtly and directly. All of the singers were in fine voice, and they handled Ms. Pope's blocking and Marko Westwood's choreography with style.

While Sam and Dinah's marriage leaves them feeling trapped, the incarceration of the unnamed protagonist of Dallapiccola's Prisoner is quite literal. His predicament is rendered concrete and personal in the composer's searing Modern, lyrical score. Ms. Shahar's production eschews specifics as to time and place, so the Prisoner's plight is universal. Ian Zywica's abstract scenic and lighting design was uncomfortably claustrophobic and transgressive. At times the light's shone at the audience, and felt as if you were under the gaze of the Inquisitor yourself.

Ms. Shahar's staging was lean and minimal, letting the music and the singers speak for themselves, for the most part. A Dancer (Terence Duncan) was a distraction, though he danced well. Lara Billings delivered a heartbreaking performance as the Prisoner's Mother and Aaron Beck was all false hope and bureaucratic emptiness as the Jailer/Inquisitor. Music Director Eric Schnobrick conducted a taut, well-paced performance, with FSU Professor Douglas Fisher and Ms. Blood on piano and a fine chorus in the pit.

Scott MacLeod dominated the proceedings as the Prisoner. He communicated anguish, fear, and exhaustion in his voice and in the demanding physicality of the role. It was a challenging role in a challenging opera. The Prisoner is not easy in any sense of the word, and the prolonged ovation by the audience was gratifying on many levels.



I've added the fine On An Overgrown Path to the blogroll. Dig especially the list of concert music web resources down the right side of the home page.


Goings On

Charles Downey, of the always interesting ionarts, has posted lots of valuable information on Leos Janacek's Makropoulos Affair (a 101 piece)and the composer's other operas. This quote, from an interview with soprano Anja Silja, is particularly telling with regard to shaping a character and a performance:

When I began singing it 35 years ago, I thought that Emilia Marty was a capricious, heartless diva. With time, I realized that she was instead a hypersensitive artist, a wounded woman, who has lived too long fearing death. The events of my own life obliged me to see things as they are. When you get older, you lose your friends, your loves. I know of what I speak: in 1966 and 1967, I lived through the loss of two men I loved, the director Wieland Wagner and the conductor André Cluytens. Emilia Marty became the identifying role of my life.

I hope you have been following the excellent series of posts by Drew McManus and his collaborators on the Take a Friend to Orchestra month project. There are no orchestra concerts in Tallahassee this month, but I do intend to take some friends to the FSU Opera production of Dallapiccola's Prisoner and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti next weekend.


Critical Convictions

Terry Teachout and George Hunka have posts up about their own critical biases and prejudices. Readers of this 'blog and of my High Hat articles will not be surprised to learn that I would tend to find more of Mr. Hunka's views generally more amenable than those of Mr. Teachout.

In addition, Mr. Teachout's tend to lean quite a bit more to the prescriptive than do Mr. Hunka's. I wonder if that is at least in part due to Mr. Hunka's status as an artist/critic, while Mr. Teachout lacks the "/" and the different slant* it confers.

*As it were.


Everything is Green (IV)

I'm well into the second (of three) scenes of Everything is Green. The action is simple--a couple, in their kitchen in the morning, argue about something the man believes the woman has done, and which she denies. This scene plays out three times, each time at greater length and in greater detail than before, but with no greater communication between the characters.

The music forms the background for this domestic inaction, rather than amplifying or "commenting" on it. Each scene has a different textural basis and rhythmic profile, but is based on similar harmonic material. The two singers share some melodic materials (but not at the same time or even in the same scene) and rhythmic characteristics, but generally speaking, their music remains as separate as they seem to be.

I also have three other pieces going, at various early stages, and I'll probably write about them as they progress.


Review: Tallahassee 101

The following was published in the Tallahassee Democrat, 2 May 2005. It is reprinted here by permission.

Two things were abundantly clear at the final concert of the 2004-2005 season of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, which was also David Hoose's final appearance as the orchestra's music director.

The first of these was that one of the motivating factors in the music of the early 20th century was a desire among composers to free themselves of what they saw as the strictures of Germanic Romanticism and to establish musical identities for themselves and their countries.

The concert opened with a delightful performance of French composer Erik Satie's buoyantly absurdist ballet, Parade (1917). The score of Parade anticipates many of the innovations of the century, including minimalism, "moment form" (pieces made up of musical moments that could come in any order without changing the substance of the piece), the use of popular idioms in concert music and the use of extra-musical sound effects (a gun and a typewriter, among others).

Hoose and the orchestra reveled in the piece's eccentricities without resorting to exaggeration or slapstick.

Mark Rohr's program note quotes another Frenchman, Maurice Ravel: "The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim for profundity or dramatic effects." Ravel's Piano Concerto In G Major (1931) avoids Germanic "profundity" but does not avoid drama. Florida State University faculty member James Nalley joined the orchestra for a lively reading of the concerto. Hoose and the orchestra provided nimble and colorful accompaniment. Nalley's playing was stylish and clean, if a little heavy at times in the lyrical slow movement.

Continuing discussion in the concert-music world centers on ways to increase audiences, especially among younger people. Many people, and not just the young, find the atmosphere at concerts artificial and stuffy. The first movement of the Ravel concerto ends with a flourish that seems designed to elicit applause from the audience. The silence with which we now treat such moments seemed extremely artificial to this audience member.

Late in life, Claude Debussy followed his signature with the phrase "Musician of France." His Prelude a 'L'Apres-midi d'un Faune' ("Prelude to 'The Afternoon of a Faun'," 1894) went a long way toward establishing a French sound in concert music that echoes in today's music.

I've commented before that because of the presence of FSU faculty members in the principal chairs in the TSO, repertoire can be played here that generally can't be heard from the local orchestra in most cities the size of Tallahassee. Prelude, with its lush solos from several instruments, is one of those pieces. Eva Amsler gave a warm and expressive reading of the iconic opening flute solo, and clarinetist Frank Kowalsky, bassoonist Jeffrey Keesecker, oboist Eric Ohlsson, harpist Mary Brigid Roman, hornist David Cripps and concertmistress Karen Clarke acquitted themselves admirably in solos and exposed passages.

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was very conscious of expressing his national identity in his music, especially in the Roman trilogy, of which Pini di Roma ("The Pines of Rome," 1924) is the most popular. Saturday evening's performance was bright and exciting.

Respighi's particular genius was in his orchestration, and the gripping finale of this work, "The Pines of the Appian Way," gets its power from the way the composer layers the motives so the volume grows through the addition of instruments. Hoose and the orchestra exhibited great control throughout, saving the biggest sound for the end. The large closing-night audience responded with a lengthy and boisterous ovation.

The other thing alluded to above is that Hoose leaves the TSO and its audience in very good shape for whoever takes up the baton after next season's year of audition concerts. And you can't ask much more of a music director's leave-taking than that.