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Here’s how you can create your own opera festival:
four rare operas in one week, and now home to rest
by Mort Levine

With eight delightfully diverse operas shown this season at local movie theaters live and direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one might well think that’s enough of an opera fix. The Met season includes 28 different works, and thus there is a lot left on the plate for any hungry operaholic.

Skimming the Met’s calendar shows that within a single week one might enjoy three of the rarer offerings and in the same time frame take advantage of a unique presentation by the Opera Orchestra of New York. They do three interesting works annually, almost never done fully staged, which outstanding singers wish to do without fully learning the roles.We thus were able to enjoy a fine concert version of Puccini’s Edgar with top flight singers from the Met and other world wide venues.

The other three gems of the repertory which were magnificently presented on the Met stage included Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s landmark tribute to Gandhi; The Gambler, a gripping Prokofief take on a Dostoyefsky tale; and Ernani, offered for the first time in nearly 25 years, an early Verdi of great dramatic and melodic vigor.

By pure serendipity, these four operas represent four different eras of opera history and luckily they were seen in their chronological order. Ernani premiered in 1844; Edgar, Puccini’s first complete opera in 1889; The Gambler, Prokofiev’s first opera debuted in 1929; and Satyagraha, Glass’s second in 1975. Each showed strong evidence of its creator’s future work and deserved prominence.

The vocal talents in each of the productions were world class. Marcello Giordani, one of the top Italian tenors, proved totally capable in the title role of Ernani but also a couple of days later was outstanding in the title role of Edgar. In Ernani his soprano love interest was Sondra Rodvanovsky, who happened to have two other pursuers for her hand, baritone Thomas Hampson and veteran bass Ferrucio Furlanetto. The melodrama was energized by the three male leads.

In Edgar, Giordani again was augmented by three other excellent performers. In this somewhat implausible plot, has a rival, robust baritone Stephen Gaertner. The two female leads included Jennifer Larmore, an experienced talented mezzo with a beautiful voice that didn’t quite match the power of her rival, the wide ranging soprano Latonia Moore, who continually reached the rafters of Carnegie Hall. Larmore was Tigrana, an aptly named siren who dooms men to a life of debauchery whereas Moore was the high minded and pure Fidelia who gets knifed by Tigrana in the grisly opera climax.

Individual voices and aria set-pieces in The Gambler and Satyagraha were less important than the total ensemble, a characteristic of 20th century opera. Much of the cast in the Russian work came along with Conductor Valery Gergiev from his Mariinsky theater in St. Petersburg. Tenor Vladimir Galouzine was the protagonist Alexei, a young tutor whose attraction to Polina, sung by Olga Guryakova, drives him to a gambling compulsion and madness.

The Gambler is staged in a casino which finally is symbolized by a gigantic surrealistic roulette wheel on which Alexei finally spins out of control having broken the bank with money showering the stage. One of the singers taking the role of a gambler is Kirk Eichelberger, whose fine bass-baritone highlighted a number of Opera San José productions in recent years.

Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word which means the force of truth. The Glass opera is entirely in Sanskrit but with projected translations periodically on the back of the stage. The action is not in a linear mode of a coherent narrative. Instead, it is a series of scenes in which important aspects of Gandhi’s work, mostly in South Africa before going back to India, are highlighted with dramatic action. Poet Constance DeJong did the libretto by extracting segments of the sacred Hindu poem, the Bhagavad-Gita. Each of the sung words hits on a note which combines with the minimalist musical form of Glass in the 70’s, and produces a hauntingly hypnotic kind of languor in the audience.

This production is spiced by a staging which employs supersized puppets created out of simple materials like sticks, newsprint and scotch tape. The materials suggest the poverty of the masses Gandhi was attempting to rally.

The Gandhi role was portrayed with great effectiveness and dignity by Richard Croft. His tenor voice reached its vocal heights with a final aria based on a simple ascending scale repeated 30 times. It climaxed a 3 hour and 45 minute performance which saw the audience burst in some of the loudest cheers and applause we’ve experienced in an opera house. A magical night of music drama.

New York in April is a pleasant time to visit. The ample offerings in theater, concerts and museums all make for a very full schedule. But then springtime here at home has a wide range of outstanding cultural offerings. Hardly time to rest up.

(SJOG Newsletter May, 2008 Issue)

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©San José Opera Guild   2008