Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Opera review: One doesn’t just see The Aspern Papers, one is transformed by it
Go, just go.
DALLAS Stop reading and buy your tickets now!
There is a myriad of reasons to go see this breathtaking, awe inspiring, flawless, and thrilling production of Dominick Argento’s masterpiece The Aspern Papers.
This opera may not be as familiar to most general audiences. The last time it was seen was 25 years ago when the Dallas Opera launched the world premiere. This flawless production demonstrates why this opera has quickly become one of the greatest works composed in the 20th century.
The Aspern Papers is loosely based on a Henry James novella. Dominick Argento takes many liberties with the novella and actually improves upon what is considered as one of James’ best works. The story revolves around a musical score that was written in 1835 for an opera that has disappeared. The opera begins in 1885. A lodger arrives at the home of Tina, the niece of the opera singer, Juliana Bordereau, in search of Aspern’s long lost score. The opera flows back in forth between the fifty year span as it slowly unravels the mystery behind the disappearance of the score. As the mystery deepens so does the tension as the audience tries to unravel the many clues behind the murky events that led to the untimely death of Aspern. The result is a nail biting suspense of an opera that leaves the audience reeling in the seats at its conclusion.
Why should audiences go to this opera? First and foremost: Susan Graham. She is one of the leading opera singers on the planet. She has performed the world over in numerous roles and received sufficient awards in her career to establish her reputation as one of the pre-eminent voices of this generation. Her voice is simply spectacular but she’s also a gifted actor. To miss out on one of opera’s greats would be a shame. She portrays the niece of Juliana and she has a secret. Her portrayal is sympathetic and eventually bone chilling. Her voice isn’t just goose bump inducing, her portrayal is too. There aren’t enough words to describe how monumental her performance is.
To be on the same stage as Ms. Graham requires a cast that can keep up. And every performer equals her in their respective portrayals. Hands down this is the best cast opera I’ve seen. Each performer doesn’t just do a superb job vocally, they also look the parts, and more importantly, they act the roles with such veracity that even the singing becomes just a natural extension of their character.
Alexandra Deshorties is stunning playing both the young and the old Juliana Bordereau. Juliana is the only character that appears both in 1835 and 1885. This requires an opera singer that can transform herself both physically and vocally and Ms. Deshorties is magnificent in her portrayal. She is able to sound like a young woman in certain scenes and an old lady in others while still singing the score sublimely. Because the opera isn’t completely linear, the audience is required to assemble the story line based on the evolution of Juliana’s ever degenerating mental state. Besides the demanding and technical vocal requirements, the performer must develop a character that is completely three dimensional and that helps guide the audience through this complex storyline. Ms. Deshorties makes this complicated acting requirement seem easy.
As Aspern, the young composer who dies under unusual circumstances, Joseph Kaiser captures the dashing bravado of a young musical genius who is fully aware of his prowess both as a composer and in bedding women. You can see why women fall for him. Yet he isn’t evil in being a philanderer, he simply has an untethered sexual energy and he fails to see how this could possibly bring about his downfall. His tenor is effortless and charming and matches his acting perfectly.
Dean Peterson as the impresario Barelli has a commanding presence and a rich, supple and textured bass voice. His portrayal is so grounded in reality that his character and his relationships with all the other characters in the scenes from 1835 make him most intriguing.
Sonia is played with a cunning twist by Sasha Cooke. As Barelli’s mistress, she knows she will have a role in the opera Aspern is working on. But there’s an edge to her performance that makes the audience know she will at any moment, and willingly, take over the role that is written for Juliana. Her character appears very innocent, almost innocuous, but the audience knows better. Keep in mind that the libretto of the opera doesn’t directly clue the audience in on her motivation; she conveys this simply and effectively in the way she sings the score in her melodious mezzo-soprano voice.
Nathan Gunn plays the Lodger who is trying to manipulate Tina in order to get his hands on the score. He is an unsettling presence. The audience is informed near the beginning of the reasoning behind his actions, but as played by Mr. Gunn we know there’s an ulterior purpose behind his desire in acquiring the music and libretto. Like the other characters in the opera he must convey his reasoning via subtext not via the actual words given in the libretto. This makes his performance so on-the-edge-of-your-seat intriguing that every note he sings captures not just the beauty of the score, but illuminates the psychology behind the character. Only a masterful singer like Mr. Gunn could do this role justice. The richness of his voice and his unique tonality in delivering the ever evolving and complex melody lines are handled with such ease that he creates a palpable and real character.
Even the smaller roles of the Painter as played by Eric Jordan, the Gardner by Mark McCrory, and the Maid by Jennifer Youngs, add to the complex and disturbing psychology of this story. The Dallas Opera cast these small roles with singers that are sublime in the expressivity of their voices.
Dominick Argento’s score requires the use of a chorus that is never seen. At times they serve as an echo to some of the words sung on stage, at other moments they simply add the sound of “aah” or “ohh” to punctuate the music, as if the human voice was an additional instrument. Alexander Rom, the Chorus Master, displays once again his unfathomable talent in directing the chorus to accomplish the unusual choral requirements of this score.
Graeme Jenkins is leaving the Dallas Opera after this season and The Aspern Papers marks his last performance. His understanding of this intricate score is evident. At one point in the opera the orchestra slowly fades into silence, leaving the singers on stage to sing acapella throughout a scene. This fading out of sound is very difficult to achieve without the audience noticing that there is no more instrumentation; he manages to make the orchestra simply disappear. A few moments later the crackling sound and the boom of the orchestra is so loud that the audience nearly jumped out of their seat. The score is at different points lyrical, lush, discordant, macabre, fraught with tension, ethereal and startling. Mr. Jenkins demonstrates his genius in this performance.
Tim Alberry directs this opera with mastery. Every moment is fraught with tension. Even the act of closing a door takes on harrowing meaning in the way he stages this opera. He is also working with a stellar cast of international reputation. It requires a master director to be able to reign in the talent so that they all work together seamlessly.
Andrew Lieberman’s set is deceivingly simple at first glance. But as the opera progresses it becomes highly complex. Most of the action takes place in one very large room with spare furnishing. Yet by angling the two walls in an asymmetric fashion he creates a visual tension that becomes ever increasingly claustrophobic. The psychological break of the opera singer Juliana is matched by a physical break on the set. The room actually breaks at the major seam and the walls begin to drift apart. As the characters descend into further insanity the walls begin to move and clear the stage leaving the stage nearly empty. His set design doesn’t just serve as a setting; it reflects the psychology of the characters and almost becomes a character unto itself.
Constance Hoffman as the Costume Designer also illuminates the mental state of the characters by their costuming. Outside of the requisite black-veiled dress worn by the older Juliana that immediately signals the unbalanced mental state of the character, her other choices in costuming not only serve to indicate the time period but the temperament of the characters. They also help visually clarify for the audience the two different time periods.
Because the play goes back and forth between 1835 and 1885 eleven times and there are no scene changes or breaks between scenes, it is key for the audience to immediately figure out which time frame is being observed. The lighting by Thomas Hase clues the audience. Each year has a distinctive look. As the opera progresses and the past intermingles with the present, the lights shift, thus “illuminating” the confused mental state of the protagonists. As with the scenery and the costuming, the lighting doesn’t just light the stage but the state of mind by the characters.
Many people shy away from more contemporary opera’s because, frequently, they tend to be discordant and not pleasing to the ear. Dominick Argento’s score is magnificent. It’s gorgeous. This said, as the characters succumb to their passions and into madness, the score reflects these psychological changes and at times becomes harrowing. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Argento utilizes his music not just as notes to convey the libretto, but to create an aural tension that keeps the listener riveted. It also supplies melodies that are captivating and that all world class performers would want to perform. It is truly a masterpiece.
The Dallas Opera’s production of The Aspern Papers is one that deserves to be experienced. One doesn’t just go see this opera, one is transformed by it. It is a world class opera with world class singers in a world class venue. GO!
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