A funny thing happened
on the way to the cabaletta
Additional performances of Great Scott are scheduled for Nov. 7 (Saturday) at 7:30 pm and Nov. 15 (Sunday) at 2 p.m. at the Winspear Opera House in the Dallas Arts District. Click here for details and tickets.
Great Scott is another animal entirely. Based on no literary source, the libretto is an original script by Mr. McNally, one of America’s most successful and provocative playwrights. At least two of his plays, Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, testify to his deep and enduring interest in opera. He returns to that interest in Great Scott.
Mr. McNally writes of Great Scott, “It is an opera that wants to include as much of contemporary American life outside the often insular world of the opera house as it can.” Well, yes, the text does acknowledge the contemporary world of cell phones, football and social media, and the spine of the piece reflects a contemporary concern about “work-life balance,” but in essence Great Scott is an opera about opera, an art form that is absurdly expensive, absurdly difficult for its
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Wondering “Who the hell is Zelmira?” It was the title of the last of Rossini’s serious “Neapolitan” operas, and it was musically innovative, anticipating Verdi. Click here for a video of a Rome Opera production.
Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato, right) in her dressing room after the performance of Rosa Dolorosa, with the show’s tenor (Rodell Rosel) and baritone (Michael Mayes) and company artistic director Winnie Flato (Frederica von Stade).
Dallas Opera: Great Scott, by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally
Sid Taylor (Nathan Gunn) tries to reignite a long-ago romance with opera star Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato) when she returns to her home town.
The actual conductor for the evening was Patrick Summers, who also presided over the premieres of Mr. Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Moby- Dick and the less-successful The End of the Affair. As one might expect, the composer’s eclectic idiom and complex orchestration were mother’s milk to Mr. Summers. He maintained a generally crisp pace but was patient enough to let the intimate moments breathe.
Mezzo madness: Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato) and Winnie Flato (Frederica von Stade) reminisce about their childhood.
The conductor (Kevin Burdette, left) tries to strike up a romance with the stage director (Anthony Roth Costanzo).
Mt. Vesuvius is about to blow its top.
Heggie’s music for Rosa Dolorosa is a well-observed and cunningly third-rate farrago of Rossinian tropes and effects, sometimes ridiculously distended. (In the Act I rehearsal scene, when Scott gives up before the end of a particularly long descending run, she declares, “This shit is hard.”) The music for the “real world” is contemporary — tonal and lyrical, sometimes with roots in the golden age of Broadway musicals, but drawing vigor from the angular rhythms of vernacular American speech and from layers of orchestral effects that suggest the busyness of the ambient sound world we are nowadays immersed in.
Memorable tunes? Not so much, but the music is nearly always delicious and tailored to the theatrical moment. The vocal lines are supple and, though sometimes technically challenging, made for singing.
November 5, 2015
DALLAS — Like the dinner buffet at a fancy society shindig, Great Scott, the new opera by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally, may be generous to a fault, but — oh, what luscious lobster tails! What scrumptious profiteroles! And, yes, please, one more serving of tournedos Rossini. What the hell, make it two.
The Dallas Opera’s world premiere production, which opened on Oct. 30 in the Winspear Opera House, is generous, to no fault, bringing together a cast and creative team that are the stuff of dreams. (I caught the matinee performance on Nov. 1.)
Mr. Heggie achieved immense success with two previous operas based on serious literary subjects. His first, also a collaboration with Mr. McNally, was Dead Man Walking (2000), based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about her counseling of a convicted murderer facing the death penalty. That work has been widely produced and appears to have a secure claim on the standard repertoire. Moby-Dick (2010), with a libretto by Gene Scheer based on the classic Herman Melville novel, was another winner from its widely lauded premiere by Dallas Opera for the inaugural season of the Winspear.
perpetrators, often absurdly absurd and sometimes absurdly glorious. It is for good reason that much of Great Scott — music and libretto – is comedic, even farcical, eliciting many peals of laughter and knowing smiles from the audience.
The title character is Arden Scott (the magnificent American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato), a famous opera singer at the summit of her career. She has discovered a previously unproduced masterpiece, as she deems it — the 1835 score of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, by the (fictional) bel canto master Vittorio Bazzetti. Scott returns to her home town to sing the title role in the world premiere, which is being produced by the struggling local opera company run by Scott’s childhood friend Winnie Flato (the great American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade). Flato's unseen husband writes checks to keep the company afloat, though his own taste runs to football — he owns The Grizzlies, who are playing in the Super Bowl across town the same evening as the opera premiere.
During rehearsal, Scott is visited by old flame Sid Taylor (the splendid American baritone Nathan Gunn), whose proposal of marriage she had turned down years earlier, sacrificing personal happiness fora life that “matters” in the theater,
just as the fictional Rosa Dolorosa sacrifices her life by jumping into Mt. Vesuvius to save the people of Pompeii (who were no doubt profoundly, if briefly, grateful.) He tries again; she resists, after a between-acts between-the-sheets, but then reconsiders when her career is suddenly eclipsed by the ambitious young Eastern European soprano Tatyana Bakst (the wonderful young American soprano Ailyn Pérez), the second banana in Rosa Dolorosa. The upstart's over-the-top coloratura version of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl goes viral. Now she, not Scott, is the biggest name in opera.
The libretto has resonances with A Little Night Music/Smiles of a Summer Night, Der Rosenkavalier, All About Eve, A Chorus Line…. Mr. Heggie’s music drains a comparably large watershed. It announces its Americanness with the first notes of the overture, a clarinet melody that recalls iconic Americana, from Joseph Funk’s hymn tune “Protection (How Firm a Foundation)” to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Hollywood Westerns (think Dimitri Tiomkin) get a nod before a rousing march appears in the style of an NFL promo, but it morphs into the style of bel canto opera.
The title role, written specifically for Ms. DiDonato, demands enormous agility, color variety and stamina. In effect, the role encompasses two operas’ worth of soaring arias, galloping cabalettas and mad scenes, which follow one another at a punishing pace, and two distinct characters representing two very different centuries. If “this shit is hard,” Ms. DiDonato made it seem easy. The most elaborate fioriture passages of Rosa Dolorosa, reminiscent of those in Rossini’s Semiramide, unfolded with click-stop precision, dead-accurate aim and total confidence. The Scott character gave scope to Ms. DiDonato’s melting warmth and her ability to delineate shifting moods and emotions through the voice alone. Her excellent physical acting and natural movement were icing on the cake.
A scene between Arden Scott and Winnie Flato, reminiscing about their teen years and talking about their lives and dreams, was wonderfully humane, engaging and real. Ms. von Stade brought all those qualities to Winnie, and her instrument proved still flexible and lustrous. Ms. Pérez projected an almost frightening presence and gleaming, slightly edgy highs in her show-stealing National Anthem, sung in front of a humongous American flag and a quartet of cops ready to speed her to the opera house. Nathan Gunn’s honeyed instrument was deeply pleasurable. The role of Roane Heckle, the bossy stage director, supplied a rare treat in the superb countertenor (and convincing actor) Anthony Roth Costanzo.
The rest of the cast was more than agreeable. Bass Kevin Burdette did double-duty in the roles of conductor Eric Gold and the ghost of Bazzetti. The roles of the tenor and baritone principals in Rosa Dolorosa were nicely handled by, respectively, Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes. The latter’s character removed his shirt during the rehearsal scene and worried whether he was appreciated for his voice or his physique — a friendly parody, perhaps, of Mr. Gunn, who has been dubbed in some circles a “barihunk” for his shirtless roles.
The Dallas Opera Orchestra played handsomely, for the most part, though some lapses in ensemble occurred.
Stage director Jack O’Brien effectively spoofed performance conventions in the opera-within-an-opera, and the other scenes were chock full of delightful and fully natural details. Great job.
The first act in Bob Crowley’s stage design was an unadorned rehearsal hall. Act II, set on opening night of Rosa Dolorosa, took us to the football stadium for Tatyana’s star turn, to Arden Scott’s dressing room at the theater and to the staged performance itself, with its perfectly horrid depiction of Mt. Vesuvius like something out of Marvel Comics. Mr. Crowley, projections designer Elaine J. McCarthy and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt must have had a blast creating it, and the audience certainly had a blast seeing it.
Mr. McNally’s libretto reserves the fullest measure of delight to opera initiates; many of the jokes and references are likely to go over the heads of novices. That isn't necessarily a flaw, just a fact. Some of the allusions work anyway: Just before the final curtain, Sid Taylor’s preteen son (MarkHancock), who had a hilarious speaking role in Rosa Dolorosa,
returns to the theater stage to retrieve his skateboard, which he rides past Arden Scott into the wings as the curtain falls. This little bit of business does double-duty — signifying Arden Scott’s impending entrance into domestic normality, and reminding cognoscenti of the analogous final moment of Der Rosenkavalier.
Great Scott is not flawless. With a running time of nearly three hours (plus intermission) — longer than Heggie’s Moby-Dick, for heaven’s sake — the new work could benefit from a quarter-hour of trimming. The libretto
takes too many detours, at least two of which could be eliminated or greatly tightened. In Act I, the cast plays an alphabetical word game, all the way from A to “I’ll be zipping through Zelmira in Zanzibar” — clever, to a point, but adding little beyond minutes. In Act II, Bazzetti’s ghost appears to Arden Scott and urges her, at great length and too polemically, to pay attention to the opera of her own time.
Looking past these easily-fixed problems, Great Scott has good bones, including a very active funny bone. To continue the anatomical analogy, it also has legs, and a heart.
Tatyana Bakst’s (Ailyn Pérez) coloratura take on the National Anthem makes her an instant star.
The cast of Rosa Dolorosa: Figlia di Pompei, the opera-within-an-opera in Jake Heggie’s new Great Scott, rehearses the scene in which the trembling ground presages the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
The God of Love (Manuel Palazzo) delivers a message to Rosa (Joyce DiDonato).