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Keith Cerny

The New Verismo

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's General Director and CEO Keith Cerny looks at breathing, singing and death in verismo opera.



published Sunday, February 1, 2015

Photo: Karen Almond
Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera

 

Dallas — Over the last several weeks, as the outside creative team and all of us on the staff at The Dallas Opera worked to bring the premiere to Everest to stage, I have been struck by the many ways in which Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s extraordinary new opera breaks new ground. In addition to Gene Scheer’s moving and heartfelt libretto, Joby Talbot’s remarkable music, and the bold new production by Robert Brill, directed by Leonard Foglia, Everest stretches the creative boundaries of opera in an important new way—conveniently illustrated by its companion opera in the double bill, Act IV of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally.

In much of 19th century opera, opera plots were typically the vehicle into which the composer could insert beautiful singing and orchestral writing, and audiences were expected to give the composer a huge “benefit of the doubt” in accepting unrealistic, and sometimes even absurd, situations. Intriguingly, though, the dramatic context, no matter how extreme, was not reflected in how the singers used their voices. As an example, at the end of Verdi’s Aida, Radamès has been unjustly convicted of treason; he is sentenced to death by suffocation, and imprisoned in a tomb. To his surprise, Aida joins him there to share in his final moments. As they gradually run out of air, they continue to sing exquisite high notes, including a unison phrase where they both sing top b-flats (nearly two octaves above middle c for the soprano) before Aida falls and dies in the arms of Radamès in the next measure. This whole sequence ends a mere 7 measures before the end of the work, leaving just enough time for Amneris to beg a few more requests for forgiveness, and the chorus to end on a beautiful open fifth on g-flat and d-flat. From a theatrical point of view, this is magnificent, especially since Amneris is also singing above the tomb in the final scene to express her remorse and beg forgiveness (in much richer oxygen!). Medically, for Aida and Radamès to carry on singing, even pianissimo, while they suffocate is nonsense.

One of Puccini’s justifiable claims to fame was his verismo writing, where carefully drawn characters live and die in more realistic settings than the artificial world of earlier Italian opera. At the end of Act IV of La bohème, Mimi is terminally ill with that quintessential 19th century killer, consumption, and lying in a make-shift bed. Musetta has gone out to seek comfort for Mimi, and returns with a fur muff; Marcello brings a medicine bottle, having also called a doctor. When Mimi receives the muff, she sits up in bed, and sings a slow and languid passage about how at last her hands will be warm. She thanks Rodolfo for the gift, expressing her misguided belief that her former lover has provided the token, before her voice gradually fades out, singing a series of a-flats (but only a minor sixth above middle c and therefore relatively low in her register). Her friends converse among themselves, preparing the medicine. Rodolfo believes that Mimi has fallen asleep, and is the last to realize the horrible truth. This ending is a famous tear-jerker, and much more dramatically believable than my example from Aida. However, other than Mimi’s voice fading away gradually, her voice does not directly reflect her body’s final collapse from consumption.

Which brings me back to Joby Talbot’s and Gene Scheer’s Everest. To my mind, this work represents an extension of verismo techniques, both from a vocal and dramatic perspective. The visceral staging, by director Leonard Foglia, emphasizes the enormous physical difficulty of climbing in the high-altitude “death zone,” where the body shuts down to such a degree that it sometimes takes a moderately skilled climber 10-15 minutes to take a single step. In the opera, the climbers move across the set, simulating climbing, rappelling, and stepping across boulders, and there are “climbing supers” whose presence further reinforce the physical demands of climbing. Musically, too, Talbot has written passages that are more conventionally operatic (for example guide Rob Hall’s elation to have reached the summit near the beginning of the opera), as well as passages that more directly signal the climber’s physical pain, lack of oxygen, and, in some cases, imminent death.

Consider the case of climber Doug Hansen, portrayed by baritone Craig Verm. Bill Zeeble’s excellent article on Everest the opera on KERANews.org includes a quote from Mr. Verm that notes “Joby has brilliantly incorporated lots of breaths. So we can move with our body and gasp for air in between words and between phrases, to give the illusion that we really are suffering from hypoxia.” 

Imagine how different the ending of Aida would be if Verdi had sought to depict the impact of lack of oxygen on the principals. Aida and Radamès would sing shorter phrases, lower in their register; the staging show them lying on the floor to capture the last few breaths of air, and the volume of their singing would decrease and eventually stop together. Even in La bohème, a classic verismo opera, a medical doctor would probably stage Mimi’s death from tuberculosis quite differently than Puccini set it.

When Craig Verm’s character in Everest is struggling to get to the peak, he says—and I again quote Bill Zeeble’s article: “I say over and over ‘let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it,’ where each word has its own note and they’re very short and punctuated.”

In no way does this suggest that the characters in Joby Talbot’s opera never have the chance to sing beautiful phrases, without distorting their breathing or their voices; they most definitely do, and there are even more conventional arias in the opera such as Beck’s aria about why he climbs mountains. The chorus plays a major role in the work, and there are numerous legato passages where they comment on the actions on the stage. Rather, the compositional techniques noted above represents a further physical and emotional intensification of the situation in which the characters find themselves. When combined with extremely physical staging incorporating labored walking and breathing, this creates a type of “super verismo.”

Part of the reason, too, that the emotional punch of Everest is powerfully strong is that the situation is so closely based on historical fact, and in some cases based on climbers’ actual experiences and memories of being on the mountain. By contrast, although we can imagine ourselves being imprisoned in a tomb in ancient Egypt, like Aida and Radamès, for many, including myself, it is quite a stretch.

We all share the experience, sadly, of losing a loved one, so imagining ourselves as a close friend of Mimi watching her slip away is, unfortunately, all too plausible. With Everest, however, our vicarious experience has an even greater immediacy, due to the vocal writing and the staging, as well as the knowledge that the characters and most of the events depicted in the opera are real. The fateful satellite call, based on historical fact, between guide Rob Hall at the top of the mountain and his pregnant wife Jan Arnold back in New Zealand, when they both knew he was dying, is so poignant and emotionally real that we can all identify with the characters and wonder what we would do in such a situation. They take that heartbreaking moment to name their unborn child.

Returning now to the other part of TDO’s double bill, Act IV of La Wally, we can easily see the contrast. La Wally premiered in 1892 at La Scala, and so we as an audience expect the composer Alfredo Catalani to focus on illustrating the emotional concerns of the characters in a musically attractive way, without being tied too closely to physical reality. At the end of the opera, Wally’s lover Giuseppe Hagenbach is killed in a sudden avalanche, shortly after Wally reveals the awful truth that she tried to arrange for his death. They swiftly reconcile, nonetheless (tenors in 19th century operas can be a forgiving lot!). In TDO’s production, relying as it does on Robert Brill’s imaginative set, Candace Evans’s supple direction, and Elaine J. McCarthy’s unique projections, Hagenbach’s death is relatively realistic by the standard of a 19th century Italian opera. In this case, it is probably the timing of his demise, rather than the manner, that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief, since the avalanche follows almost immediately after Wally and Hagenbach reconcile and are trying to pick their way back down the mountain in the dark. The opera remains a personal, if obscure, favorite, since the music in Act IV has some exquisite moments; the great conductor Toscanini saw much merit in the piece, and was its greatest champion, even naming one of his daughters Wally.

I have written previously about these two operas (here), and continue to believe that this pairing has much to offer. Part of my commitment to the community as General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera is to bring important new commissions and contemporary operas to the Winspear Opera House, incorporating new vocal, visual and dramatic techniques. There is no doubt that the world premiere of Everest challenges and stimulates us, as an audience, in many unfamiliar and exciting ways.

There are still two performances left of this double bill: Feb. 4 and 7, at 7:30 p.m. each night. I sincerely hope that you will join us!

 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:

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The New Verismo
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's General Director and CEO Keith Cerny looks at breathing, singing and death in verismo opera.
by Keith Cerny

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