|TWO OPERAS, ONE WEEK, TWO HUNDRED YEARS|
New York Chamber Opera
This past week I attended two operas separated by two hundred years. The first, on Friday, November 10, was the opening of the New York Chamber Opera's (NYCHOP) season at the CAP 21 Theatre on 28th Street near 5th Avenue. It was the first time I attended Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. Having discovered, over the decades, that I truly like Peter Grimes, Paul Bunyan, and The Turn of the Screw, I decided I should have no trouble liking this one. I guess I still need to hear Lucretia several times before some of its beauties are made more evident to me. While I did note some musical themes I could easily grow to like, the story and the music appeared to me as extremely pessimistic and dour.
Based on historical fact-the event that finally led to the revolution that caused the Romans to oust the Etruscans, whose wanton, lying ways were ruining the social and ethical fabric of the city some 8,000 years ago, and found the Roman Republic-this opera is a rather stylized and precious retelling of the tale. Although treated by many artists over the ages, including Shakespeare in his 1594 epic poem, The Rape of Lucrece, this libretto has its roots in Frenchman André Obey's play, Le viol de Lucrèce, performed in London and Paris toward the end of World War II. Britten himself insisted that poet and dramatist Ronald Duncan add two narrators, the Male and Female chorus, as Christian commentators on an essentially secular, pre-Christian story. The opera had its première performance at Glyndebourne in July 1946.
Featuring a relatively small cast, The Rape of Lucretia calls for two mezzo-sopranos, one lyric soprano, one dramatic soprano, one tenor and three baritones. Of particular note and interest were the Lucretia of mezzo Cherry Duke and the Male Chorus of tenor David Eckstrom. Also of note were Lucretia's companion and servant, mezzo Jennifer Powell and lyric soprano Victoria Wolfe.
David Eckstrom, whose "clarion tenor" voice opened the opera , deserves watching and listening by any and all opera lovers. His delivery is forceful and secure, his voice is quite attractive, and his diction is very good. Everyone in the audience usually perked up when he sang, especially during this dirge-like, essentially depressing piece. I'll step out on a limb and predict that this young man could develop into a major dramatic tenor.
The rich, beautiful voice and regal bearing of Cherry Duke made her Lucretia a memorable performance. Her poise and the intensity of her acting caused the entire audience to become increasingly involved in her plight. Here is a singing actress about whom we should hear more and more over the next few years. I'm pretty sure that, if she wishes, she can become a major force among the wealth of young mezzos appearing before the public today.
The three baritones sang Lucretia's husband and his two generals, one of them Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan ruler, who rapes Lucretia in a very graphic scene. If I do not mention their names, it is because all three had difficulty with the tessitura of their roles, and I do not wish to have them linked to that difficulty in print, even in cyber print.
With the exception of the Male and Female Chorus who wore togas and wreaths in their hair, the cast wore generalized costumes of no particular period. The three soldiers were in black leather trousers, great coats and boots with gray or white turtle-necks. Lucretia's attendants wore simple velvet gowns, one brown, the other, green, while she wore a very attractively cut red house-robe-type gown which could have been anything from leather to silk or satin. Despite the rape scene, there was no nudity, frontal or otherwise.
Finally, the orchestra, under the direction of Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor, Lucy Arner, was placed upstage behind a sheer curtain, with the singers performing further downstage. They were supportive of the singers and never drowned them out. Ms. Arner has also become NYCHOP's Artistic Director.
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New York City Opera
On Wednesday, 15 November, I got to work resigned that I would not be able to attend the sold-out performances of one of City Opera's greatest and most popular successes. Lo and behold, my supervisor offered me a ticket in the third row, left center, of the second ring . . . FREE! Is there a God? Upon arriving at the New York State Theater, I discovered that this was the penultimate performance. Yes! There must be; and he must love me!
The essential players are:
Director/designer Francisco Negrin and dramaturg Cori Ellison write in their "Notes on Rinaldo" about the story being a "fable," about the action being "mostly metaphysical, symbolic of different stages of spiritual development," with the characters representing "archetypes." While I do understand what they are expressing, I still find that the story has to be just about the silliest one in the opera canon, at least today. I'm sure there are many arguments for and against my opinion, but I shall stick with it until I'm convinced otherwise.
One of the reasons for the current popularity of Handel's operas could be just what Negrin and Ellison are writing about-especially today when our political, military, corporate and professional leaders so often eschew conventional morality and ethics to either attain their goals or ensure their positions. More immediately, however, is the fact that today's young singers are mastering the technical and musicological difficulties presented by these works. Furthermore, these operas provide perfect expressive vehicles for the growing ranks of countertenors-male sopranos and mezzo-sopranos-the closest modern equivalent of the castrato voice, for which many of Handel's operatic roles were written. We can see from the above cast list that this production features three countertenors, each with his own particular expressive and technical gifts.
In my opinion, David Daniels stands head and shoulders above most of today's countertenors, in the colors of his mezzo voice, his technical skills (he can sing the fastest, most accurate and most difficultly written coloratura I have ever heard, and I've been a counter tenor fan since the 1950s), and the intensity of his acting.
Christine Goerke, the Armida of this production, matches Daniels equally in vocal and interpretational acuity. Furthermore, she exhibits a sense of humor and fun that is rare on today's stages. At one point, during the second act, I believe, Daniels and Goerke square off on either end of the stage, and match each other, note for note, in some the the fastest and most difficult coloratura in the opera-and they sing this as a duet. . .in unison! In this repertoire, I don't think things can get any better than that. Furthermore, in the finale to Act II when she is attempting to overcome being spurned by Rinaldo, Goerke has a scene with a harpsichord and the harpsichordist in the orchestra. She "plays" the instrument so fast that smoke starts to issue from it. At the end of the scene, she points to the harpsichord and it explodes, providing a perfect ending to the Act. This at least shows that the director also has a sense of humor.
Lisa Saffer, whom we know from NYCO's productions of Xerxes, Partenope, Ariodante, and The Abduction from the Seraglio, is not only an ideal soubrette, she is equally effective and moving in the serious music she sings. During her imprisonment by Armida, her rendition of Lascia chi'io piango nearly stopped the audience's collective heart. The laments of both Goffredo (Daniel Taylor) and Rinaldo (David Daniels), earlier in the opera after Armida kidnaps Almirena, were just as moving.
Newcomer Denis Sedov thrilled everyone in the audience with his sonorous and velvety bass-baritone voice, his skillful execution of the role's complicated coloratura, and his good looks. I was able to see him backstage out of make-up, and was shocked at how young he is -- no more than his early 30s. I'd love to hear Sedov and Sam Ramey trade the roles of Don Giovanni and Leporello in a production at the Met. While he has already debuted at the Met as Colline, Sedov will be singing Leporello there in the not too distant future.
The simplicity of the sets works in this production, with a silver-colored box that serves as the interior of the prison and becomes transparent to show the imprisoned Almirena and Rinaldo, each in separate "cells."
I do hope this production was videotaped for later telecast on Educational Television (Channel 13 here in NY). It is a pure delight to both the eyes and the ears!
-- Howard (soon to be) of Griswold Hall
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