Monday, December 3, 2007

Too Many Notes

The demographics of any opera audience vary from town to town and from one subscription series to another. However, for those who like to complain about the infirmity, illiteracy and inattentiveness of the San Francisco Opera's Tuesday night society crowd, I'd strongly recommend a visit to the Greater Miami Opera Association where, on opening night of the season, most of the people in the audience make television's Golden Girls look like a quartet of teenage bimbos.

An audience comprised primarily of retirees, Miami's operagoers are eager to enjoy a night on the town and therefore come to the Dade County Auditorium prepared to party hearty. Indeed, those members of the geriatric contingent who do not enter the auditorium with fur stoles draped over their aluminum walkers indulge themselves in tailgate champagne parties and extensive socializing. Between the rhinestone eyeglass frames and the onslaught of major fashion violations which have been draped on all the wrong bodies, opening night in Dade County is truly a sight for sore eyes.

At this year's seasonal opener, several of the women seated near me took time out from intense gossiping to offer their friends candied mints and Tic-Tacs from the wide variety of oral pacifiers contained in their pocketbooks. Throughout the first act, the crinkling of cellophane could be heard echoing throughout the auditorium. During intermission, the well-heeled elderly couple seated next to me produced a large, vacuum-packed can of Planters' peanuts. And, for those who came unprepared, the refreshment stand was stocked with a back-up supply of TUMS, Rolaids, aspirin and B.C. Powders.

At the second performance I attended, a brief spell in the mezzanine found portions of the music being drowned out by the following dialogue:

"So, Esther, can you read the titles?

"No, I forgot to bring my glasses with me."

"Harriet, can you read them?"

"I'm not wearing my lenses tonight. You got any fluid in your purse so I can put my eyes back in?"

"No. But this music ain't too bad although I never heard it before. Are those two supposed to be in love?"

"Does anybody want a mint?"


For many years, the Miami Opera has been perceived as something a sleeping giant. However, since Bob Heuer and Willie Waters took over the leadership of the company, these two men have embarked on an impressive plan of artistic growth. In an effort to develop younger audiences (subscription lists are currently overflowing with senior citizens) GMOA's administration is trying to coax Miami's Cuban, Black and Gay populations into the theatre. More and more contemporary works are being programmed into the repertoire -- next month GMOA will stage Stephen Paulus' The Postman Always Rings Twice -- and, in its 1988-89 season, Miami Opera will add Giordano's Fedora (starring Renata Scotto and Ermanno Mauro) and Wagner's Die Walkure to its repertoire. There has even been talk of a possible world premiere and speculation that by 1992, when the city of Miami leads the nation in celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, GMOA will be ensconced in a brand new opera house.

In the meantime, the company is trying to remind the national and international musical media that it exists. Among the ways an opera company can generate increased press coverage is to commission the world premiere of a new opera (as the Houston Grand Opera did with Nixon in China) or present the American premiere of a rarely-performed golden oldie. My reason for visiting Miami in December was to attend the American premiere of Rossini's Bianca e Falliero.

"Bianco who?" you ask. That's right, Folks: Bianca e Falliero.

Rossini's thirtieth opera, Bianca e Falliero was the fourth opera composed by Rossini in 1819, when he was a mere 27 years old. Although it premiered at La Scala in December of that year and received subsequent productions in Lisbon, Vienna and Barcelona (as well as a revival at La Scala in 1831) this "opera seria" soon fell into oblivion. In 1986, it was performed for the first time in 155 years at the Rossini Festival in the composer's home town of Pesaro, Italy. A year later, the Greater Miami Opera Association presented the opera's eagerly-anticipated American premiere.

In order to make this an appropriately gala event, GMOA invited the Mayor of Pesaro, the Director of the Rossini Foundation and several other dignitaries from Italy to attend the opening night performance in Miami. Some of the publicity surrounding the premiere was choreographed to resemble the signing of a sister city trade agreement between Pesaro and Miami. Unfortunately, once the curtain came down after the opening night performance, one had to question whether -- other than its historical and musicological value as a Rossini rarity -- Bianca e Falliero was really such a hot ticket.

The libretto by Felice Romano, which centers on old family feuds, bears a strong resemblance to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. However, at the end of the opera true love triumphs over adversity and the Bianca is given a beautifully ornamented showpiece (originally crafted by the composer for La Donna del Lago) with which to close out the evening.

Getting to that aria, unfortunately, seems to take forever and, by the end of the opera all I could think of was the Emperor's dull-witted criticism of Mozart's music in the movie Amadeus: "Too many notes."

Sometimes, when a work falls from popularity and is left to gather dust for a century or more, there is good reason for its absence from the repertoire.


These days it is almost heresy to consider presenting an important Rossini piece without Marilyn Horne singing the mezzo role. However, Horne (who sang the pants role of Falliero in the Pesaro production) declined the honors when the Met showed interest in Bianca e Falliero and, having decided that she was not really interested in pursuing further productions of the opera, left the field wide open for newcomers.

Since Miami Opera often uses double casts for its productions, this created a chance for two talented young American mezzo-sopranos, Kathleen Kuhlmann and Luretta Bybee, to essay the role. Of the two, Kuhlmann (who did most of her training in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's apprentice program and has since married and settled in Europe) has risen much further up the professional ladder. Her voice is agile, attractive and she cuts a handsome figure onstage. However, I was more impressed by Luretta Bybee's performance which, coupled with Juliana Gondek's feminine Bianca, offered some extremely beautiful singing. In the first cast, Gianna Rolandi's Bianca, although solidly sung seemed surprisingly lifeless.

Tenors Gary Bennett and Robert Swensen alternated in the role of Bianca's selfish father, Contareno, with Swenson taking top honors. Baritones Jeffrey Wells and John Kuether both shone as Capellio, the man Bianca's father would like her to marry. Set on a handsome and steeply-raked unit set which was designed and lit by Neil Peter Jampolis, Miami's production was conducted with great brio by Willie Waters and smoothly directed by Francesca Zambello.

If Zambello's stage pictures failed to generate much excitement, I think the fault lies less with the stage director than with the opera seria structure and the score (some of which is painfully mechanical and sounds like fairly mediocre Rossini). Despite the noblest of efforts in Miami, Bianca e Falliero did not overwhelm this critic as a major find.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 18, 1988.

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