Dallas — Even le deluge on Friday couldn’t dampen the spirits of the opening night crowd at the Winspear Opera House for The Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Great Scott, a comic opera by librettist/playwright Terrence McNally and composer Jake Heggie. Even though it started late, because of the fancy-smanchy opening night dinner, the opera was interrupted by dire weather warnings on a few errant cellphones and ran long because of the exuberant and extended reception from the audience, spirits were not dampened all evening.
While there are some details that need some attention and the score could use tightening, Great Scott has to be considered a huge success with a bright future.
The Dallas Opera assembled a creative team for this commission that is hard to beat. Heggie’s last premiere in Dallas, Moby-Dick, is still being produced around the world (and will return to Dallas in 2016). The Great Scott libretto is by Terrence McNally, a Tony-winning playwright who wrote the libretto for Heggie’s first major opera, Dead Man Walking. The director is another Tony winner, Jack O'Brien, from San Diego's The Old Globe, and is known for the Broadway hit Hairspray, and others, and wrote the books for such musicals as Ragtime and Catch Me If You Can.
The story concerns an opera star at the height of her career. She is returning to her unnamed hometown to sing a recently uncovered bel canto masterpiece for the opera company run by her mentor. The vehicle for her return is the aforementioned opera, Rosa Dolorosa, figlia de Pompeii (sung in Italian and subtitled). Inconveniently, her mentor’s husband owns a football team that will play in the Super Bowl on the same night the opera is to open.
Thus, Great Scott is a palimpsest: older materials scrubbed clean and remade fresh and new.
McNally’s highly original story line is a clever combination of stock characters that can be found in most opera companies and some well known situations from other dramatic works: there is a touch of the film All About Eve, a helping of Der Rosenkavalier, and a dollop of A Little Night Music. Heggie’s music is divided into two: there is his impersonation of music in the 1825 opera embedded in Great Scott and the Heggie music, at his most neo-romantic best, that surrounds it.
It is hard to imagine a better cast and it is easy to believe that both composer and librettist knew who was singing the opera before they started to create it. As soprano Ailyn Pérez said in an earlier interview here, “These characters are so close to our own skins that I sometimes think they are us, or what we might be in another universe.”
Arden Scott, a legendary mezzo-soprano, is portrayed by superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato. She plays her with a very un-divalike simplicity, the local girl made good, who feels the pressure of impending time and voracious young replacements.
Even more human is her mentor, Winnie Flato, played by one of opera’s greatest, Frederica von Stade, who long ago came to terms with her trade off of a singing career for running her opera company and marriage to a supportive wealthy man, who loves his football team more than opera—but adores her.
That Heggie has written two leading ladies that are both mezzo-soprani is unusual in itself. In these roles, he casts two legends: Joyce DiDonato, for whom he created the role, and Frederica von Stade. While both call themselves mezzos, their voices are completely different and, while their repertoire overlaps, there are some striking differences.
Von Stade’s voice has a creamier and slightly darker sound while DiDonato’s instrument is brighter and more soprano-ish. Part of this may be due to the age difference between them, since voices are in a constant state of flux. But a look at their lists of roles points up some differences.
Both sing the standard “pants” roles, such as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss) and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart). Both also sing the coloratura roles in Rossini-era operas. But the difference in timbre, so noticeable in Great Scott, begins to show up when you see that von Stade sings more of the French repertoire, such as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther and even that most ephemeral role of all time, Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.
In Great Scott, Arden (the DiDonato character) calls the role of Rosa—in the opera within the opera—“a big sing,” and that could also be said for the role of Arden herself. DiDonato sings demanding music almost all of the time. She lightens her voice to accomplish all of the coloratura passages and adds the color of a lyric soprano in the emotional parts.
Von Stade’s role is completely different (and sadly, not as long). Most of the writing is in the lower range and her characterization, a Southern (maybe even Dallasite) woman who takes pride in keeping, and perfecting, her rough edges.
Thus, although both singers share a lot, they sound completely different in Great Scott.
Ailyn Pérez plays up the young, ambitious, talented and clueless Eastern European soprano, Tatyana Bakst, to the hilt. She steals the show whenever she is on stage, just as her character would do. Her performance of Heggie’s outrageous version of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl is worth the price of the ticket by itself.
Nathan Gunn plays Sid Taylor, the boy Arden left behind, who is now a handsome man that stayed in town to achieve his dream of being an architect. Arden and Sid are now both divorced and their mutual attraction reignites. The scenes between them alternates between the gorgeous music of an older, but wiser, romance and some of the tease that remained from earlier times. Sid’s son, played by Mark Hancock, has a brief role in the opera but a major role in the reuniting.
That brings us to the opera company itself and a collection of those who haunt opera houses worldwide.
There is the lovable but bossy stage manager. Here in a plot twist, he is not the usual rough cob, but is instead an attractive young gay man who prefers Lady Gaga to the masterpieces he helps bring to life. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is fabulous in the role. While he is obviously gay, as the conductor notices with romantic intentions, he is more representative of today’s generation. He wonders “where are the operas that reflect his life and popular music of his time?” Vocally, he is amazing.
The incredibly versatile Kevin Burdette plays Eric Gold, the smitten but perplexed conductor. Later on, he sings the role of the long dead composer, Vittorio Bazzetti, but you wouldn’t know it, without a program, from his complete change of voice and demeanor.
Two unadulterated stereotypes are played by tenor Rodell Rosel and baritone Michael Mayes, both overly proud of their high notes. Mayes character, a sendup of barihunks, is even prouder of his pecs and abs and takes his shirt off at a moment's notice. Both play it up but also have the high-note goods to pull it off.
The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley take full advantage of the different setting of the two acts. The first, a rehearsal on a bare stage, features blank concrete-like walls. The second act presents an exploding volcano brought to life with Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting also adds to the reality of act one and fantasy of act two.
The creaky plot of the opera-in-the-opera required Rosa, Arden’s character, to be lowered into the volcano to save Pompeii. Sid (Gunn) reminds her that, as far as he could remember, Pompeii wasn’t saved, to which Arden’s character replies that operas are full of futile gestures.
Alexander Rom does his usual, and always exceptional, job with the choral work. Patrick Summers is one of the best opera conductors working today and he elicited a marvelous performance, both from the stage and the orchestra pit. The choreography, by John de los Santos, is a small part of the opera. However, he does a wonderful job of the dance at the disastrous rehearsal and the finished opera.
All that said, the opera needs tightening. Cutting about 15 minutes, a minute here and there, would help and never be missed. Further, it has too many endings, stacked one after another. “The End” can be hard words to write.
Great Scott could have ended quite nicely with Rosa’s lyrical decent into the volcano, and many in the audience were surprised to have it continue after that. And continue it did.
We had a series of endings, each one tying up another plot thread, leaving nothing for us to wonder about on the way home. On the other hand, cutting them would deprive us of the winner of the award for the cleverest ending. This was the one that finally closed the show, a wonderfully wise tribute to the last scene of Der Rosenkavalier.
And now, allow me to stand on a familiar soapbox:
Heggie’s rich and lush neo-romantic music will someday be looked back on as a landmark; a moment when we finally emerged from the chromatic thicket of the 20th century, created mostly by tenured college professors, with little care for the tastes of the public. We no longer have to include backward musical language to be considered “serious.” Prokofiev said that he first wrote his music and then went back to Prokofievize it later. Go figure.
Some of the greatest composers of our time were stigmatized by their unapologetically “accessible” music. (Don’t you just love the use of that word as an insult?) Samuel Barber was the most famous victim of Atonal PC. I could name hundreds more.
However, it is the great opera composer Lee Hoiby that immediately comes to mind. His 1971 opera Summer and Smoke was a huge success with the public but dismissed by “the establishment” as hopelessly dated. His delightful setting of a Julia Child TV episode, Bon Appétit, turned into a libretto by his life partner Mark Shulgasser, was a hit a few seasons ago in a chamber production by the Dallas Opera. His last and perhaps greatest opera, Romeo and Juliet, from 2004, also on a libretto by Shulgasser, remains unproduced four years after his death in 2011, unheralded and forgotten.
No one doubts that the journey through modernism, or whatever you want to call it, didn’t have value. Composers have a greatly expanded palette from the experimentations. And because of this, the tonality of today, of Great Scott, is refreshed and a far cry from either the maudlin Victoriana or the complexity of the late-chromatic-but-still-tonally-centered composers, such as Richard Strauss and early Schoenberg. The problem was the snuffing out of any dissent from unruly students seeking to find their own unique language.
Even though it happened time and time again in the history of music, from the Burgundians to Beethoven and beyond, let us hope that we will never let one school of musical composition get such a stranglehold on the voice of emerging composers again.
Great Scott could very well be the defining line, a bulwark against such dictatorial hierarchies.
» Gregory Sullivan Isaacs will give the pre-opera lecture before each of the five performances of Great Scott, beginning an hour before curtain in Hamon Hall at the Winspear Opera House.
» Read his primer about the opera here
» Read our interview with soprano Joyce DiDonato here
» Look for more features and interviews related to Great Scott coming on TheaterJones