Three operas in two days mean an ambitious festival in progress. When the Fort Worth Opera reinvented itself in 2007 from the traditional format of fall and spring seasons into a concentrated annual festival, the idea was to focus attention and lure in audiences, not just North Texans but folks from far and wide.
It certainly seems to have worked. Some unscientific observation combined with occasional eavesdropping showed healthy-sized crowds of locals sprinkled with opera buffs and industry professionals from around the country.
A well packed schedule isn’t enough though. Quality performances and interesting programming are essential and on these fronts FWO is also succeeding. At each performance, the musical execution from cast and orchestra was very good to excellent, while sets and costumes were substantial and fresh. Plus, two out of the three operas – Heggie’s “Three Decembers” and Adamo’s “Lysistrata” – were less than 10 years old.
Starting with the traditional, Friday May 25 was the season’s third performance of “Tosca.” (Not seen was a fourth opera in this year’s festival, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”) Music director Joe Illick conducted a meaty and driving orchestra in support of a fine cast, including soprano Carter Scott in the title role, baritone Michael Chioldi as Scarpia, and tenor Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi. The violent murder and reverent aftermath in Act Two were appropriately riveting and chilling but the ecclesiastical parade in Act One also lingers in memory. Beneath an elaborate set, some 35 feet tall, processed a chorus of 30 adults and 15 children, plus 22 supernumeraries serving as villagers, clerics, even the pope.
It’s interesting trivia that both of the contemporary pieces (seen on Saturday May 26) were premiered by the Houston Grand Opera. That company, of course, has a long and distinguished track record of birthing new works, but seems to have lost steam in recent years.
Other than being of recent Texas vintage and set in English, the operas might seem to have little in common. “Lysistrata” is a comedy of mythic origin and grand in scale. It’s based on Aristophanes’ battle of the sexes amidst the male fixation on war. By contrast, “Three Decembers” is familial, poignant and intimate. It’s about two adult American children confronting their aging and distant mother, who’s an aloof Broadway actress. The source is a play by Terrance McNally.
Seeing these shows back to back in the same day leads to still more thoughts of their contrasts and similarities.
Adamo’s opera is about two and a half hours long yet almost devoid of set pieces. Minutes into the first act there’s a fart in the brass and the orchestral score remains fragmented and grinding. Most of the umpteen gags though are in the composer’s original libretto, which is too clever by half. It’s heavy on dialogue, lists and silly accents and also overstuffed with alliteration. Though replete with rhymes it’s sadly short of poetry.
Heggie’s “Three Decembers” is 90 minutes of pure lyricism. An offstage chamber ensemble baths the whole in long smooth lines. There’s also a lot of conversation, some on cell phones, but each of the three characters is given space and scenes to plumb their emotional depths. Gene Scheer’s libretto betrays the story’s roots in straight play and is sprinkled with profanities.
Despite these different terrains, the effect of each opera was largely the same – minimal. Neither drew this listener into their respective musical universe nor struck home emotionally on any consistent basis. I had one, maybe two, spontaneous laughs during the whole of “Lysistrata.” In “Three Decembers,” the gay son’s grief after his partner died of AIDS was unexpectedly touching. But the family fights, profane laugh lines and final apotheosis of the diva mom all left me cold.
The audiences in Fort Worth, though, seemed to eat up both shows. There were guffaws aplenty in “Lysistrata” and audible sniffles at the conclusion of “Three Decembers.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine productions that could make the case for the two operas any more persuasively than the FWO’s admirable efforts. In “Lysistrata,” soprano Ava Pine was on top of her game as Lysia, and was even at her best in the finale, when the libretto peters out into a bunch of stammering syllables. Other fine supporting cast members were tenor Scott Scully, mezzos Meaghan Deiter and Alissa Anderson, and baritone Michael Mayes. Conductor Illick kept the orchestra rolling. The colorful set was a combination of scaffolding, columns and trompe l’oeil statuary.
There’s a bit more to quibble about in “Three Decembers.” Sopranos Janice Hall and Emily Pulley looked more like sisters than mother and daughter and Hall’s voice had an inconsistent tone and a few pitch problems. Baritone Matthew Worth started out sounding very operatic with a throaty, overly rounded tone, but eventually settled into delivering the vernacular text with a convincing American accent. The offstage ensemble was screechy during the angular interludes and one longed for a bigger sound during the swelling emotional climaxes. The sets by Bob Lavallee were chic and surprisingly lavish. And by the way, the opera was performed with no supertitles, a nice statement of confidence in the ability of the singers to be understood, which they were.
Speaking of confidence, the programming of “Lysistrata” and “Three Decembers” is evidence of Darren K. Woods, FWO’s general director, having confidence in his audience and the local community. And here I’m not talking about the ability of listeners to just accept some new works, but rather to handle the subject matters. I once heard, I think it was on PBS, an editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram say that Tarrant County was the country’s most conservative after Orange County, California. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the work of the Fort Worth Opera. In 2008 they produced “Angels in America,” and two years later premiered “Before Night Falls.” Like both of these pieces, “Three Decembers” overtly addresses homosexuality and AIDS. And for all of the silliness in “Lysistrata,” it contains a fair bit of explicit eroticism. During the whole of Act II, the soldiers were literally hard up.
Taken as a whole, the whirlwind weekend of opera in Cowtown was a good ride and served as further confirmation that the Fort Worth Opera is the Texas troupe with a buzz.
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012
Puccini: “Tosca,” Bass Hall, May 25
Heggie: “Three Decembers,” Scott Theater, May 26, 2012
Adamo: “Lysistrata,” Bass Hall, May 26, 2012
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