20 December 2017

CD REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally — GREAT SCOTT (J. DiDonato, A. Pérez, F. von Stade, N. Gunn, A. Roth Costanzo, K. Burdette, R. Rosel, M. Mayes, M. Hancock, M. Palazzo; ERATO 0190295940782)

IN REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally - GREAT SCOTT (ERATO 0190295940782)JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961) and TERRENCE MCNALLY (born 1938): Great ScottJoyce DiDonato (Arden Scott), Ailyn Pérez (Tatyana Bakst), Frederica von Stade (Winnie Flato), Nathan Gunn (Sid Taylor), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Roane Heckle), Kevin Burdette (Eric Gold, Ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti), Rodell Rosel (Anthony Candolino), Michael Mayes (Wendell Swann), Mark Hancock (Tommy Taylor), Manuel Palazzo (Amor); The Dallas Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Patrick Summers, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at The Dallas Opera, The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas, Texas, USA, on 30 October and 1, 4, and 7 November 2015; ERATO 0190295940782; 2 CDs, 155:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers – WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

In a conversation that yielded the title posthumously given to what has become one of Thomas Wolfe’s most popular works, the journalist Ella Winter remarked to the North Carolina-born author, ‘Don’t you know you can’t go home again?’ The novel to which the title You Can’t Go Home Again was ultimately assigned tells of an author whose autobiographical fiction was uncomfortably and unflatteringly real for the neighbors who appear in the story, flimsily disguised. Only in optimistic cinematic epics do conquering heroes return home to universally appreciative welcomes: in the messy actualities of everyday life, few people achieve prominence in any arena without also garnering resentment. One of the greatest trials faced by an artist is that of remaining true to his own experience without betraying the confidences of his fellow journeyers; as Emily Dickinson wrote, to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ How does one return to discussing the weather with a friend whose life was unceremoniously put on display and then put aside?

A study of the complications of coming home is the crux of Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s opera Great Scott, premièred and recorded by The Dallas Opera in Autumn 2015. Universally acknowledged as one of the world’s most significant opera singers, Arden Scott returns to her hometown to star in a production of a long-neglected bel canto masterwork unearthed by her own musical sleuthing. Championed by the gregarious patroness of the local opera company, American Opera, Arden herself has found a protégée of sorts, the wily Tatyana. Still in the town she abandoned in pursuit of the notoriety she craves is Arden’s high-school sweetheart, now a single father and renowned architect. In the collisions of these personalities and the characters who surround them, Great Scott invites the audience to participate in the conspiratorial process of making opera whilst navigating the minefield of egos, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with minimal carnage.

McNally is right to contend in his informative, enjoyable, and predictably literary introductory essay that accompanies this CD release that Great Scott should not be classified as a comic opera. As he knows all too well from the research into the career of Maria Callas that shaped his 1995 play Master Class, singers’ lives are rarely comedies, no matter how funny episodes in them may be. The sacrifices made by singers in the pursuit of their careers are never to be played for laughs, especially by those who profit from artists’ loneliness, failed relationships, and missed family events. This, Canio might say, is the lesson of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: Art is a deadly serious business transacted by people who sometimes can only pretend to be happy. The dichotomy between the humorous mishaps of the stage and the tragedies large and small of artists’ personal lives is the defining ethos of Great Scott. There is abundant comedy in McNally’s witty, often bawdy text, not least in the exchanges for Arden, Arts patron Winnie Flato, and Arden’s former flame, architect Sid Taylor. Arden’s interjection of ‘This shit is hard!’ in her rehearsal of the cadenza of Rosa Dolorosa’s aria and Sid’s correction of Arden’s compliment on his beautiful design for the town library [‘No, it’s fucking amazing!’] are two of the funniest lines in recent opera, but the sentiments that they express are far deeper than conversational humor. The greatest eloquence of McNally’s punctiliously-crafted libretto is its utter lack of pomposity. All of the players are given words that sound wholly right for the characters—and for the singers who portray them, for that matter. McNally has no need to resort to stretches of prose to advance the plot and outbursts of poetry to develop the characters: every person on stage speaks with an individual voice, and, as in any worthwhile opera production, the drama falls into place all around them.

From the mock-Rossinian crescendo of the opera’s rollicking Overture to the madcap Act One finale and the frenetic, touching, almost Mozartean frisson of Act Two, Heggie created a score in which traces of the raw emotions of Dead Man Walking, the quest for understanding of The End of the Affair, the wistfulness of Three Decembers, and the magniloquence of Moby-Dick are fused in a communicative cyclone that sweeps McNally’s words across the footlights. Heggie proves in his writing for the fictitious rediscovered Nineteenth-Century masterpiece at the center of McNally’s scenario to be a latter-day master of bel canto, but Great Scott emphatically is not a pastiche. Rather, the music is a remarkably clever chameleon with different colors for each twist of the plot. In the near-catastrophic rehearsal of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei that transpires in Act One, Heggie conjures the turbulent climate of a musical Noises Off, but there are moments of soothing tranquility in the eye of the storm. Arden’s articulations of self-doubt, her defense of young Tommy, and her awkward reunion with Sid are set to music of the unadorned expressivity expected of the composer of Pieces of 9/11.

Only someone who loves and respects the art form as completely as he understands it could depict the first night of a much-anticipated operatic production as vividly as Heggie does in Act Two of Great Scott. The continuity with which the transitions from Rosa Dolorosa’s action to backstage antics are managed is worthy of Shakespeare’s—and Britten’s—Midsummer Night’s Dream. Great Scott is a fantastically enjoyable opera turned inside out, but it is also a deeply affectionate paean to the people who make opera happen. Great Scott’s diva, the upstart scheming to replace her, the preening primo uomo, the exasperated conductor, and the long-suffering stage manager are all clichés to some extent, but, energized by McNally’s words, Heggie made them astonishingly genuine people: lovers, parents, rivals, friends. In the opera’s final scene, punctuated by Tommy’s return for a forgotten skateboard, Arden breathes the same air inhaled by the Marschallin in her final moments in Der Rosenkavalier. At peace with the past, embracing the present, and equally anxious and excited about the future, she sheds the artifice of Great Scott and fully, exultantly becomes simply Arden. Her transfiguration is accompanied by music of dazzling serenity, music via which Heggie reminds the listener that the greatest voices of opera are also voices that hush infants’ cries, comfort injured children, and whisper words of apology, acceptance, love, and farewell.

Supervising the circus of bringing opera to the stage is like second nature for conductor Patrick Summers, and his leadership of this performance of Great Scott both expands his reputation as a conductor of modern repertory and confirms that he shares Heggie’s appreciation for the genre and the brave souls who make singing it their lives’ work. Though the obvious benefits likely outweigh the difficulties, it nonetheless must be terrifying for a conductor to début the music of a living composer, especially one of Heggie’s abilities, but Summers has learned from performances of standard, time-tested repertory that the relevance of music of any vintage relies upon excitement, not excesses or excuses. The excitement that his conducting of Great Scott generates ultimately engulfs pit, stage, and audience. Particularly impressive is his response to audience laughter, with which he may have received assistance from the editing of the recording. So persistent and well-timed is the laughter on these discs that Heggie might have scored it as an instrument in the orchestra, and Summers paces the performance with great care for ensuring that not a word of the text is lost to the collective mirth. The contributions of TDO’s Chorus and Orchestra are almost miraculous: in Act One, for instance, it is possible to believe that the curtain was erroneously raised on a volatile private rehearsal, but the musicianship is unfailingly professional. Their tasks are made easier by the affable approachability of Heggie’s style, but rhythm and intonation are as important in Great Scott as in Rigoletto, Lohengrin, and Turandot. Great Scott is a demanding score despite its charms, and the irreproachable performances by Summers and TDO’s choral and orchestral forces invaluably aid the music in casting its spells.

Regrettably, the Amor of dancer Manuel Palazzo can only be imagined in the context of an audio recording, but the prominent part in Great Scott’s drama played by Mark Hancock’s Tommy Taylor, Sid’s young son, is wonderfully evident. Arden’s male colleagues in American Opera’s production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, Anthony Candolino [‘a high-strung singer with a boisterous personality and a top that he is eager to share with the world’] and Wendell Swann [‘a handsome man who wears his matinee idol title proudly and earns his Don Juan reputation daily’], are portrayed with spot-on realizations of their respective identities by tenor Rodell Rosel and baritone Michael Mayes. Both characters are distant relatives of the tenor in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and these expert singing actors fill their lines with rousing tone and absolute credibility. Few denizens of the theatre could fail to relate to Anthony’s statement in Act Two that ‘no man over twenty should be asked to wear a toga,’ delivered by Rosel with deadpan comic skill. Wendell Swann could hardly be more different from convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher, the rôle in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking for his performances of which Mayes has received great praise, but his turn as the libertine singer is equally successful.

Doubling as conductor Eric Gold and the ghost of Rosa Dolorosa’s composer Vittorio Bazzetti, who appears to Arden as she contends with panic in her preparations to sing Rosa Dolorosa’s grueling music, bass Kevin Burdette is the vodka in this operatic cocktail: effortlessly blending into the ensemble, his sonorously-sung performance emerges with slyly intoxicating hilarity. An ingenious exponent of rôles such as Donizetti’s Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore and Sulpice in La fille du régiment, Burdette possesses an exceptional talent for highlighting the intelligence and humanity in characters often portrayed by other singers as imbeciles. Maestro Gold is in no way moronic, and Heggie’s music provides Burdette with welcome opportunities to display the splendid caliber of his voice. Similarly versatile, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is an artist seemingly capable of singing any repertory with unimpeachable authority, and his detailed, demonstrative depiction of the stage manager Roane Heckle—a name worthy of a Dickens novel—in Great Scott is an example of his best work. Like any stage manager worth his salt, Roane veritably earns a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during the preparation and première of American Opera’s production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, and Costanzo’s singing imparts the character’s manic predicament without even momentarily lapsing into hectoring. Feisty, flirtatious, and genuinely funny, Costanzo is a perfect foil for Burdette.

It is indicative of the effectiveness of Ailyn Pérez’s embodiment of ‘young, talented, fiercely ambitious soprano from Eastern Europe’ Tatyana Bakst that, throughout much of the opera, she inspires a gnawing craving for Tatyana and Arden—or anyone with pugilistic skills superior to Tatyana’s—to come to blows in the fashion of Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Wielding a voluptuous timbre and a tremendous top D, Pérez’s Tatyana is a vixen with as many virtues as vices. As the story progresses, the relentlessness with which Tatyana vamps her way along the path to stardom gradually hints that she is a woman with her own demons. Her singing of the national anthem at the Super Bowl is to a certain degree a Pyrrhic victory—a contest without a prize. Though Heggie’s music for the character is daunting, Tatyana is a quintessential ‘party rôle,’ and, liberated from the necessity of carrying the weight of operatic drama upon her shoulders, Pérez is enchanting, singing with unforced élan. Undiplomatic as it is to say so, every singer either knows or is Tatyana, but Pérez’s Tatyana is a fully-drawn portrait of a still-to-be-tamed stage animal rather than a two-dimensional archetype. After all, what is a diva without her temperament?

To Heggie’s music and McNally’s words for Sid Taylor, whose path in life after Arden’s departure from their hometown has been anything but smooth, baritone Nathan Gunn brings verbal clarity, emotional candor, and vocal swagger that match his leading-man stage presence. Chest-thumpingly sure of himself as an architect, Gunn’s Sid is endearingly gauche in his encounters with Arden. There is a suggestion of good-natured competitiveness in his boasting of his professional achievements, but Gunn emphasizes the embarrassment at the heart of Sid’s bravado. His son Tommy is the bridge between Sid and Arden, and the famous singer’s protection of Tommy unmistakably softens the single father’s resolve, reintroducing him to the Arden he loved before opera became her paramour. When Gunn voices ‘Wow, you’re beautiful’ in Act Two, the listener feels the pangs of reawakened passion that resound in his words. The baritone’s vocalism is occasionally slightly unsteady, most noticeably at the ends of phrases, but he uses this to his dramatic advantage, heightening the life-altering implications of his casual banter. Conventional wisdom and the laws of physics assert that opposites attract, but there is no doubt that Arden could only be content with a partner who is her intellectual equal. That is a tall order, but Gunn’s Sid rises charismatically to the challenge.

Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is one of Heggie’s most trusted collaborators, having created the rôle of Mrs. De Rocher in the 2000 world première of Dead Man Walking and inspired some of the composer’s finest music, and patroness of the Arts Winnie Flato in Great Scott is a marvelous vehicle for her. The part is sympathetically written, but Heggie holds nothing back, and von Stade’s singing justifies every musical choice. Superb singing has been a hallmark of von Stade’s performances since the beginning of her career and is no more surprising now than in decades past, but the self-effacing humor of her characterization of the happily-divorced Winnie is unexpectedly beguiling. Experience in rôles like Thomas’s Mignon and Debussy’s Mélisande has made von Stade an artist who looks beyond obvious interpretive devices in search of the truest essence of a character, and she finds in Winnie’s psyche a maelstrom of emotions that are outwardly reflected in her stress over the production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei. Her Winnie is a compendium of benevolent patronesses from Christina of Sweden to Jacqueline Badger Mars: surrogate mother, confidante, source of encouragement, and indefatigable proponent. Arden’s success or failure in Rosa Dolorosa is vicariously Winnie’s, as well, and the fate of American Opera is not merely a matter of collecting a return on an investment. It is impossible to overlook the symbolism, von Stade being so integral to the vitality of both American opera and opera in America. From this perspective, Great Scott is in part a letter of thanks to von Stade, one that needed to be written, and she reads it in tones that, as Beethoven put it, come from and aim for the heart.

Only Heggie, McNally, and the singer herself can say (and they would likely say very different things!) whether there is more Arden Scott in Joyce DiDonato or more Joyce DiDonato in Arden Scott. What the listener cannot fail to discern is how completely the mezzo-soprano is immersed in the rôle. Even amongst the Baroque, bel canto, and later rôles in which she has won acclaim [Arden’s tongue-in-cheek observation about having sung her 900th Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia surely drew a sigh of commiseration from her portrayer], DiDonato’s Arden is a remarkable achievement. It should not be presumed that she gives any more of herself in her portrayal of Arden than in performances as Elena in La donna del lago or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, but she conspicuously adopts Arden as a spiritual sister. Spotlighting the intricacies of a singer’s craft, DiDonato guides the audience into the peculiar, often secretive world of an artist’s routine.

The apex of Act One is Arden’s self-searching monologue, and the immediacy with which DiDonato announces ‘I want to matter’ closes the gap between artist and rôle, for here she enunciates the dearest desire of every earnest singer. Battered by the competing expectations of triumph as Rosa Dolorosa and pressure to début a new, starkly different modern rôle written for her, ‘Medea Refracted,’ Arden teeters on the precipice of artistic collapse, unsure of how to reconcile what she feels that she must do as an artist with what she longs to do as a woman. Confronted in Act Two by the ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti, the desperation and crippling uncertainty that Arden faces in ‘You’ll never be her’ are stingingly poignant. The fluency with which DiDonato sings Rosa Dolorosa’s bravura flourishes is fantastic, but it is her lyrical singing of Arden’s music that thrills and moves. Fiorature are produced by technique, her performance intimates, but singing at its most unaffected emerges as much from the soul as from the diaphragm. As recorded, a few notes at the extreme top of her range tax DiDonato, but, like Gunn, she magnifies flickers of vocal effort into flames of dramatic expression. In terms of feats of technical prowess, Arden Scott is not DiDonato’s most awe-inspiring assignment, but she is an emotional powerhouse whose sensibilities spurred DiDonato to give one of the most thought-provoking performances of her career.

An artist’s life is an enigmatic, ever-changing equation in which ability, ambition, self-promotion, and self-preservation must be carefully balanced. Opera is not conducive to treading lightly, but recognizing and respecting one’s own boundaries are necessities of enduring a career as a singer. The glamour of opera often distracts audiences from the gritty realities of singers’ lives, which is as it should be, but it is easy for audiences to blur the distinctions among persons and personas. There is no shortage of glamour in Great Scott, but there is grit, too. It is the grit of brushing off failures, laughing at oneself, and learning to measure homeward journeys not in miles but in smiles. Take it from Arden Scott: you can go home again but only when you realize that home is a sense of peace, not a point on a map.