Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, this summer’s Merola Opera Program came to a close with its annual Grand Finale concert of opera scenes, all staged by one of the trainees in the Program, Apprentice Stage Director George Cederquist. As in the past all stagings took place within the integrated framework of a unit set that could support multiple settings with a minimum of props and a generous imagination on the audience side. Instrumental music was provided by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by John DeMain, Director of the Madison Symphony and Artistic Director of the Madison Opera.
Presumably, program selections are chosen to highlight specific projects that have occupied the Merolini singers through their work with the Program Faculty. The result always seems to turn out as a mix of the familiar with the neglected, usually covering a rather generous interval in the history of Western opera. There is also the opportunity to explore a variety of dramatic genres ranging from intense tragedy to low comedy.
Last night offered some excellent examples of well-conceived and powerfully expressed intensity. Most significant was the staging of John Claggart charging Billy Budd with mutiny, along with the preceding orchestral interlude, from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. The libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier departs from the original text by Herman Melville by introducing Edward Fairfax Vere as an old man, reflecting on the incident that is Melville’s plot-line. Vere is haunted by how the slightest flaw can lead to evil triumphing over good; and, in this particular scene, words and music combine to capture the respective flaws of Budd, Claggart, and Vere himself, setting in motion a mechanism of tragedy that will end with Budd being hanged for having killed Claggart.
Last night’s performance thrived through the ability of each of the vocalists to capture his respective flawed character. Tenor Robert Watson, who so capably handled the commanding persona of the Male Chorus in last month’s performance of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, was superb in capturing Vere’s initial confidence, which then dissolves into helplessness. Bass-baritone Thomas Richards complemented him as the scheming Claggart, bearing false witness through his envy of Budd’s inherent goodness. However, it is the naïveté of that goodness that undoes Budd. Claggart’s accusations render him speechless (a panic reaction we encounter earlier in the opera). He can only respond physically, and that response is a single violent blow that kills Claggart. Baritone Alex DeSocio captured all of these different elements of Budd’s character with excellent dramatic effect, making this the most memorable scene of the evening.
That scene, which began the second half of the program, was excellently complemented by an equally intense excerpt from the first act of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in the first half. This was the duet scene of Erika and Vanessa that climaxes with the arrival of the younger Anatol and Vanessa’s “Do not utter a word” aria. Soprano Linda Barnett (who had complemented Watson as the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia) embodied both the patience and the frustration of a woman who has waited twenty years for the return of her lover. Mezzo Rihab Chaieb captured Erika’s conflicted personality as both dutiful niece and a young woman frustrated in trying to find her own way in life. This scene was facilitated by Barber’s imaginative approach to instrumentation to represent the emotional undercurrents of these two highly repressed characters.
On the comic side Cederquist flexed his imagination with delightful results in the scene in which Dandini (baritone Efraín Solís) reveals to Magnifico (bass-baritone John Arnold) that he is a servant, rather than a prince in Gioacchino Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Similarly effective was his staging of the seduction of Hélène (mezzo Kate Allen) by Paris (tenor Matthew Newlin), in which she tries to fool herself that this is all happening in a dream, from Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène. In a far more traditional vein, soprano Jacqueline Piccolino went for sincerity, rather than comedy, in her delivery of “O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” However, her performance was particularly memorable for her command of soft dynamics that could still penetrate the vast space of the War Memorial Opera House.
Most impressive was the generous share of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin to honor the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. The very first selection was the scene between Elsa (soprano Aviva Fortunata) and Ortrud (mezzo Daryl Freedman) from the second act. Then, in the second half of the program, tenor Issachah Savage gave a powerful account of Lohengrin’s leave-taking in the opera’s final scene.
As might be expected, not every scene hit the mark as surely as these examples. Baritone Joseph Lattanzi was clearly trying very hard to establish the character of the returning Ulisse in his solo scene from Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse, but he never seemed to connect the music with the drama. Part of the problem, however, may have been that he did not connect particularly effectively with the orchestra pit. That, in turn, may have been the result of DeMain not matching his instrumental resources to the opposing physical demands of Monteverdi’s scoring and the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House.
Nevertheless, this was an evening in which one could enjoy the assets of the program without fussing at length over the liabilities.