Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nothing to sniff at

Note to the ladies in row DD: no, you are not allowed to talk just because nobody's singing.

Alright, that's out of the way.

Well, boys and girls, though mostly boys, I was in simply the rottenest funk about going to An American Tragedy. Said I to my dinner companion: you know what the last thing in the world I feel like doing is? Attending a new American opera. I hate to get all "mes cheres!" about things, but ah my friends and oh my foes, was I ever wrong.* Cutting to the chase, it was great. Not exactly wet my pants great, or even run around in little circles shrieking great, but if I may frame things ever so egocentrically, anyone who can write an opera that ends with a little boy singing about Jesus and does not end with me swinging from the rafters has done a neat trick. (Three of my least favorite things: organized religion, children, and children singing. Here at FPMFOB, we aim to alienate.)

Truly, this was satisfying on all levels, as stagecraft, as song. The score itself, with its off kilter nostalgic Americana (in the breathtaking hymn, for instance) flavored everywhere with palatable mid-century film score modernism, the utterly non-embarassing libretto--and we all know that's an achievement--both erased memories of some much duller recent premieres. The production, though it looked better in motion than at rest when it got where it was going, ran aesthetic rings around last week's Shakespeare romp. Yes, it looked like a gigantic "memory" game (where did I see the other drowning girl? over in that corner, I think) or one of those grids where you push the numbers around. But, and how can I explain this?, in a good way.

Statistically unlikely as it is, I'd actually never heard Patricia Racette in house. She does have an air of utility diva about her, but I'm happy to see she can be rather more. True, in lyrical scenes there's a mildly generic quality to the instrument, but emotional climaxes apparently put the girl on her mettle. Her death was quite gripping. Also filed under happy surprises, Nathan Gunn it turns out is more than just a great rack. Heretofore I had seen him only as Billy Budd, and anyone who tells you they remember the sonic element of that bit of one-handed listening is lying, lying, lying. As it turns out, he's a masterly steward of his voice, though I do think...well, let's just call him the male Mattila, ok? Calendar cute, no vocal worries, and a certain disconnect between the physical performance and an intermittent instrumental/non-dramatic quality to the singing. [Edit: I remembered later what struck me as I was listening, that this was not entirely Gunn's fault. His arias really aren't the most memorable music, not by a longshot the best things in the score.]

Susan Graham is something of a whipping boy around these parts, but I mostly have to hand it to her. Did you ever read the story about the kids who live on a planet where it rains for seven years and then there's one sunny day and they all lock this one kid in a closet so he misses the sunny day? No? Well the one time in seven years Susan Graham gets to dress as a girl, I do think it's a bit mean spirited to make her wear that wig is all. She didn't always set me on fire but the aria about being changed by New York was a fine moment for her, and she sank her teeth into the role of Sondra Finchley and chewed. There were moments of real vocal class.

The only real ovation went to Dolora Zajick. Mine is not to reason why. Now, don't think that the fact that I recently quoted Mrs. Parker is going to keep me from doing so again, oh no. Writing about Dawn, Mrs. P says:
One can but revise a none-too-hot dialectic of childhood; ask, in rhetorical aggressiveness, "What writes worse than a Theodore Dreiser?"--loudly crow the answer "Two Theodore Dreisers"

It does at times seem on the decibel evidence there are two Dolora Zajicks, not to draw any parallels. If there were a shred of artistry in her phrasing, she'd be the best goddamn singer ever. Husbanded as they are, her vocal riches make me someting between whistful and irritated.

In some smaller but equally well drawn roles...William Burden was also a one-off for me until tonight, previously familiar only from the World's Ugliest Entfuhring (hereafter WUE excepting I don't intend to speak of it again. Ever.) And he was solid in that and even better in this, his acting perhaps the best of the bunch. JSU called this one: Jennifer Aylmer = Dawn Upshaw + Clairol Winsome Wheat Blonde, in mostly good ways. Richard Bernstein has gotten very little attention but I think quietly turned in a very praiseworthy reading of Orville Mason, the district attorney, who presumably also pops a mean corn.

I have this feeling I just did more picking than praising. Other than my generally negative nature, I'm not sure why. I pretty heartily recommend this, if you're on the fence. Ok or even if you're just daydreaming about bringing your binocs and try and look up Nathan Gunn's dowdy bathing garment. (Doesn't work. I tried, kids.)

Now, do I wait for Tuesday's Rigoletto or try and get score desk for the prima? Would that be totally pathetic or what?

*Great. Channeling Edna Millay. That's the way to turn it down a notch.


Anonymous said...

Danke for the comments. I'm really looking forward to Thursday, now. I'm most heartened by all the reports of the quality and skill of the libretto, especially considering what modern American operas have tended to do to works of literature. And we can all support things like a shirtless Nathan Gunn.

JSU said...

So did you use the titles?

Maury D'annato said...

jsu: I did what I always do with the titles. I left them on and looked at them part of the time. Everyone's diction ranged from fair to very good, though I'm having trouble remembering whose was what. Well, everyone except one person and seriously, I don't have some mad grudge against Dolora Zajick or anything...

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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