looking at you, kid: (l-r) Chiba and
Burden in Death in Venice.
Portrait of Obsession
Opera, July 25
his final opera, Benjamin Britten turned to an unlikely source:
Thomas Mann’s spare, brooding monologue of a novel, Death
in Venice. Unlikely because it provides few opportunities
for operatically rich conflict; there’s more Monteverdi than
Verdi in this piece.
But Britten turned those dramatic limitations into the strengths
of this compelling piece, all of which shine through in a
brilliant new production by the Glimmerglass Opera. Mann’s
protagonist, a writer named Aschenbach (sung by William Burden),
finds himself creatively stilled as he faces middle age. He
is discovered on a heavily raked stage, in a once-opulent
room that serves, through the use of chairs and ghostly people,
to suggest a Munich cemetery. Here a mysterious Traveler (David
Pittsinger) suggests that he “travel to the south,” setting
off the story’s chain of events.
Possibly obeying the repeated opening words of the piece—“My
mind beats on”—set designer Donald Eastman uses this room
throughout the opera, where it serves variously as a hotel
room or lobby, a waterway, a barbershop, a beach. Aschenbach
is in every scene, and the room can be seen as the self-containment
into which he has remanded himself. With the help of the finely
nuanced lighting by Robert Wierzel, each transition and scene
works convincingly and, when necessary, unsettlingly.
But it’s the music that does most of the work in conveying
the obsessive qualities of Aschenbach’s character. A plangent,
10-note b-minor scale suggests the writer’s obsessive orderliness,
and it will recur throughout the opera. Venice itself is heralded
by a pleasant chorus (“Serenissima”), which turns into a barcarolle
as Aschenbach is ferried by the Charon-like figure of a rogue
gondolier, who willy-nilly brings him to the Lido and then
vanishes without payment.
The Hotel Manager who welcomes him also is sung by Pittsinger,
who also sings the roles of an Elderly Fop, a Hotel Barber,
the Leader of the Players and the Voice of Dionysus. He does
an impressive job of differentiating these characters even
as they’re all presented as mirrors of the personality sides
that Aschenbach represses. To allow himself any of the freedom
these alter-egos display might save him, but he remains on
a doomed path sparked by his infatuation for a Polish boy
whom he sees at the hotel.
The boy, Tadzio (Scott Chiba), is a dancing role, as are the
roles of his family (two sisters, mother and governess) and
several other youths. Although most of the dance consists
merely of stylized walking, also given to Aschenbach and other
singers, the young boys frequently frolic on the beach and
in the hotel. Movement director Nicola Bowie, who also plays
Tadzio’s mother, keeps the kids credibly busy, stylized without
seeming too choreographed—probably the best route to take
without importing a full-blown dance troupe.
Tadzio never vocalizes, but is thematically represented by
an A Major theme given to a percussion-rich orchestra. Aschenbach’s
musings are in the form of extended recitatives to a free-flowing
piano accompaniment. It’s difficult music, but its cumulative
effect is made all the more powerful by the skill of the ensemble,
under the reliably accomplished baton of music director Stewart
Director Tazewell Thompson debuted at Glimmerglass with a
brilliant Dialogues of the Carmelites three seasons
ago. He does well with dark, brooding works like that and
this, making effective stage pictures where the piece needs
to be static, and otherwise flowing the action around in a
compelling, effective way.
It’s a star turn for Burden, on stage for close to three hours,
singing his heart out as his Aschenbach shifts from detachment
to passion, from joy to despair. As a singer, Burden sweeps
effortlessly through the difficult work; as an actor, he’s
This certainly isn’t an opera for all tastes, but it gives
you a ride you’ll not soon forget.
portrait de Manon
La voix humaine
Opera, July 24
Two short works with
provenances in earlier works, but what a contrast! Love is
scorned in both, but Jules Massenet’s Le portrait de Manon
is a tuneful, trifling melodrama, while Francis Poulenc’s
La voix humaine looks at loneliness in an age of technology.
voix humane (the human voice) was a long monologue as
penned by Cocteau; Poulenc turned it into a spellbinding 45
minutes for soprano alone. The biggest challenge of theater
lies in its limitations, and the best theatrical experiences
are those that triumph over such restraints. By default, the
actors typically are stuck on a proscenium stage; Poulenc
upped the ante by putting his protagonist, Elle (Amy Burton),
on the telephone throughout.
But director Sam Helfrich did away with that restriction,
and thus threw away a rich dimension of the piece. I would
applaud his decision to allow Burton to range freely about
the stage if it in any way enhanced the piece, but the set-up
seemed pointless except to offer the fetishistically wonderful
moment when Elle hangs her stockings and underwear to dry.
We live in an age of hands-free phones, but in 1959, when
La voix humane premiered—and certainly within memory
of all who will see this piece—that umbilical cord was a tangible
frustration, like the anachronistic party line Elle shares
(and which adds to her misery as other callers butt in). How
much more challenging to keep her at that phone, which otherwise
sat on its own little table at stage left.
David Newell’s set displayed, on every possible surface, a
repeated image of a man’s suit-jacketed torso, a phone on
a desk before him. It was distractingly unnecessary: This
should be a piece about minimums.
But forget all that. The reason to see this is Burton’s performance.
She’s Miss Lonelyhearts from Rear Window given voice;
she’s coming to grips with the fact that she’s been dumped.
She’s been play-acting the silly girl for too long, and tries
to discover, in spite of her pain, a truer voice. Burton’s
nuances were extraordinary, an able match to Poulenc’s witty,
searing score, nicely conducted by Stewart Robertson.
Massenet wrote Le portrait de Manon to cash in on the
fantastic success of his earlier Manon, but it has
the look of a deliberate quickie. Still, the guy wrote great
tunes, and added a few new ones to the recycled Manon
motifs. Theodore Baerg is the aged Des Grieux, after 20 years
still lamenting his beloved, whose stylized image smiles down
from all over Newell’s much more successful set. He forbids
his ward, Jean (Colin Ainsworth), to marry Aurore (Kristine
Winkler) because Aurore isn’t high-born enough. And so her
father, Des Grieux’s happy-go-lucky friend Tiberge (Bruce
Reed), comes up with a plan. Excellent singing, and director
David Lefkowich (an Albany native) keeps us in the period
with his imaginative staging.
Being unfamiliar with any other edition of this work, I can’t
say what the new one, by Andrew Bisantz (who also conducted),
brings to us, but it’s a pleasant trifle well worth its place
on this double bill.