Thursday, December 6, 2007

Much Ado About Massenet

When the New York City Opera first announced that its 1987 season would highlight works written by French composers, many opera queens -- although welcoming the good news -- were nevertheless a bit skeptical about how well such a season would fare at the box office. Operas like Massenet's Werther, Don Quichotte and Bizet's Les Pecheurs des Perles are rarely heavy sellers and, other than certain standards of the operatic repertoire (like Bizet's Carmen and Gounod's Faust) today's singing superstars don't spend too much of their time dabbling in the realm of French opera. However, the celebration surrounding the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday combined with the genuinely melodious scores of many French operas, helped to sell tickets this summer. If nothing else, audiences knew they would come out of the New York State Theatre humming old-fashioned tunes.

As it later turned out, the New York City Opera's festival of French opera was a smart strategic move for, with its emphasis on young singers, City Opera lacks the kind of mature tenor who can belt out the music written for Verdi's Otello or match the nearly superhuman demands of Wagner's Siegfried. "An opera like Manon or The Pearl Fishers doesn't require a tenor to sing as heavily as he would in order to make his voice carry over the huge orchestrations which accompany Puccini's music. Sure, there are some extremely passionate outbursts of sound, but they're handled differently in the French repertoire than in Italian opera," confided longtime Francophile Beverly Sills during one of our conversations.

"It's like the difference one feels in the impact made by a very fragile piece of lace compared to the impact one makes with a terrifically strong piece of leather. The French repertoire was written for young, lyric voices and, like all things which are subtle and delicate, it's much more challenging. In a Massenet opera, the emotional push comes from the singer, whereas in Puccini, you can use more portamento and usually do a lot more sobbing," explained the woman who, in her heyday, was famous for her portrayal of Massenet's Manon. "Although the music does leave you very exposed, there's no place in the score where you really have to push the voice."


There was certainly no evidence of vocal strain on the night I attended City Opera's production of Cendrillon. Massenet's treatment of the Cinderella legend has many moments in which the composer's lush orchestrations create a sense of wondrous musical riches while generating an aura of magic throughout the theatre. The dream sequence which takes place in an enchanted forest -- during which Cendrillon is reunited with her Prince Charming -- is the purest operatic gossamer imaginable.

Under Brian Macdonald's direction, this production (seen in San Francisco in 1982) glowed with a grand sense of magic and make-believe. Henry Bardon's sets were straight out of children's fairytale books; Suzanne Mess's costumes masterpieces of period pomp. With Mario Bernardi on the podium and Sonya Friedman's Supertitles above the stage, this performance came as close to perfection as one could hope for.

Jane Shaulis's boisterously belligerent Madame de la Haltiere was a comic gem backed up by Carol Sparrow and Jane Bunnell (who did a superb job of camping it up as Cinderella's two ugly step-sisters). John Lankston's dancing Master of Ceremonies and William Parker's Pandolfe served as strong genetic foils to Lucille Beer's beautifully sung and sauvely acted Prince Charming. Special kudos go to Faith Esham for her radiant Cendrillon (this artist's transition from mezzo to lyric soprano continues to impress me) and to Erie Mills for her spectacularly clean and warm coloratura singing as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother.


I wish could have been equally ecstatic about the performance of Werther which I attended in Lincoln Center in October. Forty years after it was first performed by the New York City Opera, the company unveiled a new production of Massenet's fragile opera designed by Thierry Bosquet (whose gentle hues did a fine job of offsetting the intense romantic passions which lie at the core of Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther).

While there is much to admire in this new production (I especially enjoyed Sergiu Commissiona's conducting) Massenet's Werther has always struck me as one of those peculiar works which takes its own sweet time going nowhere. Jon Garrison's visually and vocally appealing hero was backed by Sheryl Woods' ebullient Sophie and William Parker's gently restrained Albert. Unfortunately, because mezzo-soprano Susanne Marsee was not in good voice at this performance, her throbbing, throaty Charlotte threw the evening severely out of balance.

Alas, Werther is a tremendously delicate work which, like a classic souffle, must have the right blend of ingredients in order to succeed. Although, with another Charlotte, this could have been a very special evening, it soon became evident that on this one particular occasion Massenet's much-cherished musical souffle had fallen in on itself.


Thankfully, Miss Marsee was in much better voice at the matinee of Don Quichotte where, as Dulcinee, she alternately charmed and confused the aging hero of this piece. With Mario Bernardi again on the podium, City Opera's orchestra performed this beautiful Massenet score with a great sense of affection. Although I did not get to see the first cast for this production (Sam Ramey, Victoria Vergara and Joseph McKee) there could be no complaints about the second.

Harry Dworchak's Don Quichotte was a tender fool pursuing his impossible dreams with a magnificent sense of moral conviction. In his first performance of the role, Jan Opalach's portrayal of Sancho Panza was nothing less than phenomenal. This man is an incredibly gifted artist whose attention to vocal and dramatic detail could serve as a role model for young singers.
I was particularly enchanted by Robin Don's sets (which rank with the most fascinating scenic designs I've seen in years) and Susan Benson's costumes. John Copley's stage direction seemed as if it had been nothing less than a labor of love. I suppose my biggest regret is that I only had time to attend one performance of Don Quichotte. I hope Massenet's charming opera remains active in NYCO's repertoire for some time to come.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 11, 1986.

No comments: