City Paper is not for tourists
Performed by the Washington Opera At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
One of the more eye-opening results of the recent Holocaust commemorations has been the resurrection of a nearly lost world of mid-20th-century opera. Works banned by the Nazis and not seen in 60 years have found new life on London Records’ “Entartete Musik” (“Degenerate Music”) series, and more significantly, on the world’s opera stagesGoldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci in London and Der Gewaltige Hahnrei in Berlin, Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis in D.C. and Philadelphia, and Krása’s Verlobung im Traum in Mannheim and Prague, to name a just a few.
By importing the production of Verlobung im Traum (Betrothal in a Dream) from Europe and staging Krása’s short opera Brundibar for young audiences, the Washington Opera has not just chosen a convenient pair of PC projects from the catalog of forbidden works: It has afforded Washington audiences the chance to see the entire operatic output of Krása’s tragically short life. Unlike that of the more happily fated Korngold, Weill, Hindemith, Goldschmidt, and Krenek, Krása’s promise was snuffed out in midcareer in the Auschwitz gas chamber. An intellectual and cosmopolitan artist, Krása synthesized the international influences weaving through Prague in the ’20s and ’30s, continuing the great Czech operatic tradition of Dvoÿrák, Smetana, and Janacek. There’s no telling what might have developed had he lived into our own era, but as Betrothal testifies, his was a musical personality quite unlike any other.
What a strange and elusive piece Betrothal is! Krása’s catholic tastes in music are well-documented, but the stylistic quotes seem to shift with every phrase. Its sound-world lies somewhere between Arabella and Mahagonny, with a fair dose of Lulu thrown into the mix. Krása keeps flirting with atonality but rarely takes us there and, some lush moments aside, he tends to favor a pared-down orchestral palette. In a manner reminiscent of Webern, he’ll often reduce instrumentation to the barest handful of colors necessary to illuminate a line of text.
The plot is full of boilerplate romantic-comedy conventions. Marya Aleksandrovna labors mightily to marry off her daughter Zina to a rich but elderly Prince. The Prince’s nephew Paul, meanwhile, connives to get Zina for himself. Zina wants neither and pines for her perilously ill lover, Fedya. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get title refers to the Prince’s drunken marriage proposal, which Zina accepts to gain the finances Fedya needs to get well, and which Paul convinces the Prince (and assembled villagers) was a proposal he only dreamed of making. The story gains distinction thanks largely to Dostoyevsky, whose short story Uncle’s Dream formed the basis for the German-language libretto. He gives everyone an ethical dilemma. Do I marry the Prince in order to benefit my lover? Should I force my affections on a woman who could be my granddaughter? Even a bounder like Paul debates with himself whether to risk losing Zina by telling her Fedya might be dying. Krása keeps step with everyone’s conflicts in his quicksilver changes of tone, occasionally generating magic, as when a character’s aroused passions prompt a gray vocal line to flower into Viennese opulence.
The score is a delicately woven carpet, but Krása dazzles most when he pulls that carpet out from under us. Zina is freed of Paul and the Prince and ecstatically prepares to meet Fedya when the news comes he’s died. It’s a shocking moment, and Krása achieves it with the utmost simplicity, letting all richness drain from the music, and turning Zina’s near-dancelike joy to a steady, listless tread. The Archivist, who had delivered a pre-curtain introduction to the story, returns with a brief epilogue to let us know that Zina will later marry an old governor and live wealthily and lovelessly for many years. With lines too heartbreaking to sing out fully, Krása has the Archivist drone them in the barely musicalized speech of Schönbergian sprechstimme, and the effect is chilling.
Its denouement excepted, however, Betrothal is a tough piece to get caught up in. The Washington Opera’s press materials quote composer Viktor Ullmann’s description of the work as having “a somnambulistic assurance,” and that pretty much nails it. As much as moments in the score tantalize and invite repeated listening, there are stretches that could tempt the heartiest listeners into their own dream worlds. That’s due in part, no doubt, to a musical and emotional landscape that doesn’t keep still long enough for the listener to gain a firm footholda liability only in a work of such pervasive reticence. The sheer interiority of it all is a challenge, dramatic action more often than not traded for states of mind. Equivocating monologues give way to prosaic snatches of conversation and drunken reveries spun out with sleepy deliberation. Granted, Krása is attempting to blur the line between dream and reality, but he winds up with an atmosphere piece where not a helluva lot happens onstage. (The same charge could be leveled against Tristan, Pelleas, or Capriccio, but they so exhaustively probe their characters’ psychesand they’re so drop-dead gorgeoustheir stasis becomes hypnotically compelling.)
Fingers could be pointed at the current production to explain Betrothal’s inertness, but director Karel Drgáÿc seems to be taking his cues straight from Krása. This is a romantic comedy that moves at half-speed, speaks in half-tones, and springs its surprises in half-revelationsand that’s exactly what winds up onstage. If anything, Drgáÿc and designer Rainer Sinell make a stab at creating life beyond the libretto.
A skeletal house, composed of strongly geometric lines, revolves during orchestral interludes to reveal the comings and goings of gossiping servants and frolicking houseguests. Even Fedya, lying on his deathbed miles away, occasionally floats though the scene. Each room is saturated in a single, iconographic coloricy blue for Zina’s loveless bedroom, green dominating the parlor where her mother’s money-hungry schemes are played out, etc.a bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but arresting even when the drama meanders. Scenes are directed in the sort of nuts-and-bolts manner that may offer few epiphanies, but never overfreights the sparer lines of score or text.
By the Washington Opera’s consistently high vocal standards, the Betrothal cast comes off solid rather than memorable, though two singers stand out. Brigitte Hahn’s Zina is generously vocalized, with silvery high notes and a fine sense of lived-in melancholy. A baritone with both richness and a wry smile in his voice, Peter Parsch finds a playful mix of Barons Ochs and Munchausen in the old Prince.
Betrothal may elude easy analysis or immediate affection, but the production is obviously a labor of love, not least by conductor Israel Yinon, who hunted down a score long assumed lost. His spiky, exploratory work in the pit is evidence of his advocacy, and the orchestra copes bravely with parts that play like thorny chamber music. The question could certainly be raised why Krása was singled out for such an American premiere over composers more seductive or trenchantly political. (Zina’s plight is allegedly that of The Artist Under the Thumb of a Repressive Regime writ small, but the production makes nothing of the allegory.) What matters is that a fine composer has at long last been given his due, and the army of brainless warhorses is kept temporarily at bay. If Betrothal’s beauties are of the somnambulant variety, it doesn’t make them less worthy.
And speaking of beautiful bores, Werther is as ravishing and anesthetizing as they come. Now, I’ll admit I’m somewhat Massenet-challengeda little of this composer goes a very long way with mebut few could claim Werther’s plot is jampacked with incident. The story is not hard to follow: Werther falls in love with Charlotte (moments after meeting her), discovers she’s engaged, whines about it for the better part of a year, then blows his brains out. Not to say that’s all that happens. In Act 1, for instance, some little kiddies sing a Christmas carol (in July, har-har), while Werther extols the beauty of nature. Then extols the beauty of little kiddies. Then extols the beauty of Charlotte (a lot of extolling). Charlotte gets misty about her dead mother and her dead sister, her living sister Sophie skips around the yard, the fiancé drops off some flowers, and Werther declares he’d rather die than lose out on all this purity and domestic bliss. Curtain. There are three more acts. Get the idea?
The opera is based on a literary classic, Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werthersort of a Catcher in the Rhine for the 19th-century teen-suicide set. But while the focused compulsions of good Romantic prose can throw its readers into a sweat, translating such intimate stuff to the stage can be a tricky proposition. In Werther’s case, Massenet’s music caresses the story but mutes its passions. His score is the aural equivalent of candied violets, Werther’s life-and-death obsessions rendered in pastels. Nowhere in evidence is the heat, the churning desperation of Verdi or Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn heroes, let alone the psychological and symphonic depth found in Wagner and Debussy. Massenet’s art is illustrative rather than illuminating, and in seeking to keep audience feathers unruffled, he contents himself with melancholy surfaces rather than genuinely disturbing undercurrents. For better or worse, Werther is one, long wistful sigh.
As is the production. Director Roman Terleckyj and designer Zack Brown are both militant literalists, both lovers of pretty surfaces, and as such fit Massenet hand-in-glove. With a stageful of painstakingly realistic arbors and quaint groupings of quaintly costumed extras, all Acts 1 and 2 are missing are the glass case and museum guards patrolling the aisles. Then in Act 3, something happens. Leaving behind the safely cocooned world of balmy weather, happy families, and hopeful love in the first two acts, Brown abandons as well his dogged naturalism, casting some parlor furniture and an exquisitely muralled wall adrift in a wintry landscape. This room, as exposed to its threatening surroundings as the characters’ sad little lives, is possibly the most striking single set in the Washington Opera warehouse, and upon its appearance the production takes on a moving grandeur.
But what really cuts through the sugar-coating to the painful underpinnings of this tale is the Charlotte of (the appropriately named) Charlotte Hellekant. Act 3 is her showthe closest we come to getting inside this character’s head. Every quiet change of thought registers with ineffable sadness and a gradually spiraling sense of dread. Hellekant speaks volumes about Charlotte’s disappointing marriage and erotic longings for Werther with the simplest intonation, the barest gesture. This may be the act in which Werther returns from his long journey to confront her, but even his famous aria is less interesting than her reaction to it. As she amply showed in The Marriage of Figaro and Vanessa, Hellekant is one of our finest singing actors. The mezzo, with a voice set aglow by a shimmering, urgent vibrato, recalls Von Stade in her amber tone, and Fassbänder in the take-no-prisoners intensity of her acting.
This is not to slight the rest of a fine cast, headed by tenor Michael Myers (no, not that one). Myers is that rare breed of tenor who marries the kind of supple lyricism demanded by this material with enough heft to give the illusion that Werther is acting on his emotions rather than having his emotions acted upon. Strong, appealing work is also on hand from Thomas Paul, Nancy Allen Lundy, and Chris Owens as, respectively, Charlotte’s father, sister, and fiancé. And for all the reports of snowed-out rehearsals, the orchestra plays with passion and precision, the ever-admirable Cal Stewart Kellogg conducting the most urgently communicative Werther in recent memory. Kellogg could do this piece in his sleep, but provides one of the evening’s best reasons for staying awake.
Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is the kind of bel canto comedy the Washington Opera occasionally has done in its sleep, and the company seems in danger of nodding off for a good chunk of Act 1 in its new production. The classical theater elements in the pre-show setskewed and hauntingly lit against a darkened stagepromise much, but prove window dressing to a ho-hum, cutesy design of neon-colored storybook drops. More damaging is Heinz Fricke’s way with the score, starting with that all-too-familiar overture. The whiz-bang high spirits that prove so irresistible to Pops programmers and the folks at Looney Tunes have been steamrolled out of the music. With percussion subdued and a chamber-recital restraint imposed on the rest of the band, there is no anticipatory frisson whatsoever.
Most puzzling of all is the sobriety of the production itself. I’m not talking deconstruction (which, in any case, would be a tougher sell here than in the composer’s more wistful La Cenerentola) but limited comic imagination. The surprise is that director Leon Major has proved himself a shtickmeister of the highest order in similar materialthink back to the hilarious, ceaselessly inventive business with the troops in Daughter of the Regiment. But the bumbling musicians in the opening scene come and go mirthlessly, and in the dialogue that sets the big Act 2 elopement in motion, Figaro and Count Almaviva (terrifically sung by Michael Chioldi and Brian Nedvin) meander through their blocking like it’s…well, blocking, and nothing more.
Things improve a bit with Vivica Genaux’s entrance as a feisty Rosina. The role is enjoying something of a golden age these days, with mezzos the like of Bartoli and Larmore lavishing their gifts upon it. Genaux can hold her own in such company. Her bright upper register, dusky chest voice, and forwardly placed tone create a spunky, distinctive heroine, and one with acting chops to boot. Of course, in this classic commedia dell’arte plot, involving Rosina’s confinement at the hands of her lecherous old guardian, Bartolo, much of the potential humor lies in the dynamics of their relationship.
It’s refreshing to see a Bartolo who doesn’t succumb to the shameless mugging that so often passes for acting in this part. But once again, the relative straightness of approach brings not so much wry understatement as humorlessness, and it takes Francesco Facini most of Act 1 to generate the requisite comic steam. In this, he finds less help in Edward Russell’s dullish, cotton-mouthed performance as the conspiratorial music teacher, Basilio, than in the Figaro/Almaviva team, who find their comic rhythms with increasing success as the act winds on. By the Act 1 finale, Major’s skill at choreographing comic mayhem rises to a fine silliness, with a running gag involving a doddering servant (Major’s, not Rossini’s, invention) paying off handsomely.
Act 2 is much better. Facini’s self-important, patriarchal fussings are subtle, but dead-on in the Italian buffo tradition. Ditto Nedvin, in appropriately ridiculous Basilio drag, and Chioldi is as personally and vocally engaging as could be wished. The well-known ensemble finale has the proper fizz quotientall that vocal cork-popping distracting from the snoozy response in the pitbut considering his lovely singing throughout, it’s a shame Nedvin loses his bravura final aria to the editorial ax. With the exception of the increasingly garish sets and regrettable overkill in that doddering servant gag, the second half of the evening shows Barber can still come to life, even after an hour on autopilot.
All told, an oddly subdued Eisenhower rep, but one worth investigating for a real musicological find, a pair of fine conductors, and a pair of outstanding mezzo-sopranos. Now on to the pair of potential three-ring circuses opening at the Opera House this March: Mefistofele and Cosi Fan Tutte.CP