Weekend Opera Trifecta: A Barber, A Courtesan, and a Prima Donna

Sometimes the stars align and suddenly I find myself attending three operas in one weekend.  (Actually, to the best of my recollection this is the first time I've actually attended three operas in one weekend!).  Saturday matinee – Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan Opera.  Saturday evening – Verdi's La Traviata at the NY City Opera performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).  Sunday afternoon – Wainwright's Prima Donna, again NY City OPera performing at BAM.  While there were definitely low points as well as high points, I generally have good things to say about all of them.

But the production of Barber at the Met is not one of the higher points.  I remember an earlier production with naturalistic sets that changed from scene to scene.  This new production by Bartlett Sher conforms with the current trend towards going without sets, instead moving around props to suggest different settings.  I don't like the current trend.  I like real sets that are actually intended to suggest the setting in which the action specified in the libretto takes place.  But I guess if one is focusing mainly on the music and the drama or comedy, the sets are not so important.  But this is also where I think the production and performance let me down a bit.  I remember performances of Barber that were really funny.  This one wasn't.  I remember performances that were light and frothy.  This one wasn't.  A bit amusing at times but never really funny. 

I thought Marco Armiliato's tempi were a bit on the slow side and the playing struck me as a bit on the heavy side.  On the positive, however, I really did enjoy Diana Damrau's singing of Rosina (and she sang this role in the prior production as well), Colin Lee was a bit stolid as the Count.  Rodion Pogossov's Figaro lacked "bounce," as far as I'm concerned, although some of this may have more to do with fitting in with what the stage director wanted.  Having Figaro enter sitting on top of his wagon struck me as silly – was it an excuse to have a live donkey on the stage which had no other reason for being there?  (Live animals on stage detract attention from the live people on stage, and shouldn't be used unless the plot actually demands them.)  John Del Carlo's Bartolo was actually the most comic turn, and the one that came closest to what I remember of really great Barbers I've seen.  Gerruccio Furlanetto as Basilio was next to Del Carlo in comic accomplishment.  A Met official apologized for before the second Act for Del Carlo singing with a cold, but I didn't hear anything wrong.

And I didn't see the reason for building a platform over the orchestra pit.  Waste of effort, negative effect on the sound, and no good reason for the cast to be prancing about in front of the orchestra.  Am I complaining too much?  It was a very polished performance – just not a great comic Barber.

In the evening it was La Traviata.  This is City Opera's first year of wandering after renouncing their lease at Lincoln Center.  It's great that they don't have to perform in a hall designed for dance.  BAM's opera house is designed for opera, and is a much more comfortable and acoustically sound environment.  This Traviata production was borrowed from Glimmerglass and has the limitations of summer theater – a basic unit set subjected to slight modifications from one scene to the next – but the wallpaper gives the show away.  How believable that the five different sets for a Traviata performance would all have the same wallpaper (and window treatments as well)?  But, again, one comes to Traviata mainly for the singing, and I thought the principals – Laquita Mitchell (Violetta), David Pomeroy (Alfredo Germont), and Stephen Powell (Giorgio Germont) – were splendid.  If I were to award first place, it would be to Powell, who seemed the most settled and confident in his role, but all three were superb.  Steven White conducted an alert City Opera Orchestra. 

Finally, this afternoon, the U.S. premiere of Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna, which was debuted in the U.K. and then played in Canada before making its way to City Opera.  Wainwright started with Callas, the sad story of the soprano's final years when she kept dreaming of performing again, and mixed in various other elements to come up with a libretto that is not always convincing.  He decided to set his story in Paris (where Callas spent her final years) and so put his libretto into French.  I'm not sure it's such a great idea for an American composer to set a French libretto for his first full-length professional opera production, but there it is.  He had a splendid conductor and cast, and the unit set made sense for the story (and was more interesting than the previous evening's Traviata set, with much more inventive lighting as well). 

Jayce Ogren, who made such splendid work of Bernstein's "A Quiet Place" during City Opera's last season at Lincoln Center, led a committed performance, and Melody Moore was stunning as Regine Saint Laurent, the soprano dreaming of a come-back.  Kathryn Guthrie Demos was also stunning as Marie, the chambermaid, who had what was the most excerptable aria in the piece, at the beginning of Act II.  Randal Turner as the officious gay butler, propping up the singer with pills and pushing her to return to the stage, was suitably detestable as a character but spectacular in his role, and Taylor Stayton as the journalist who comes to interview Saint Laurent about her planned come-back and enters her dreams as a young lover was superb as an actor, although his voice tended to get buried under the lush orchestration.

And it was orchestration rather than melodic invention that impressed me most about Wainwright's music.  Act I seemed to fall into the genre of opera soundtrack music, i.e., music that doesn't call attention to itself in terms of melodic invention.  It seemed to me that things moved rather slowly in Act I, and that the composer was trying to avoid sounding like a pop song writer who strings together some catchy songs and calls it an opera – resulting perhaps in the pendulum swinging a bit far in the other direction.  But Act II struck me as much better, the composer less frightened of writing recognizable melody that could even become memorable on repeated hearing.  Perhaps I would like Act I better after having heard Act II and identifying the motivic seeds that would blossom later.  Snatches of the "opera" that was to serve for Saint Laurent's come-back (a mythical "Eleanor of Acquataine") appear in Act I without making a great impression, but then an extended dream sequence in Act II lets them really be heard, and the style sounds like the operas of Chausson or Chabrier – second-rank French opera in a romantic style.

The harmonic language is generally conservative, the scoring influenced heavily by Puccini as well as Wagner and the French romantics.  I hope Wainwright writes another opera, because he is melodically gifted, has a flair for orchestration, and if he is paying close attention will have learned lots of lessons on his first time out.  This is running for some more performances this week and is worth hearing.

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