KY Opera Twins Generate Pleasure But Not Electricity

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Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek Serghei Diaghilev in 'Danse Russe' by Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout at Kentucky Opera Oct. 2013 (Patrick Pfister)
Sergei Diaghilev (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek) declares ‘Astonish me!’ in ‘Danse Russe’ by Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout.
Kentucky Opera Double Bill October 2013. (Photos by Patrick Pfister, Jan Abbott and Robert Godwin)
By Paul Hyde

LOUISVILLE — That wily old impresario Sergei Diaghilev knew a thing or two about putting on a great show. “Astonish me!” he exclaims repeatedly in Danse Russe, Paul Moravec’s genial one-act opera performed Oct. 11 and 12 as a part of a Kentucky Opera double bill that included the world premiere of the composer’s dark-hued The King’s Man.

Diaghilev’s advice for artists remains worthwhile. Audiences, whether in the concert hall or opera house, long to be thrilled and astonished. Moravec’s two contrasting operas, written with librettist Terry Teachout, proved engaging, often entertaining, and occasionally poignant, though they lacked the astonishment factor – that touch of transcendence that catapults a work to an enduring place in the operatic repertoire.

Méndez-Silvagnoli) and Cammarota as Ben and William
Méndez-Silvagnoli and Cammarota as Ben and William Franklin.

The King’s Man, performed in a workshop staging at the University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall, unearths a fascinating and little-known episode in American history: Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William was a Tory sympathizer – “the king’s man” — who remained close to George III throughout the Revolutionary War.

As might be imagined, this created tremendous friction between father and son. The King’s Man’s centers on their final, bitter meeting. Almost immediately, the two strong-willed Franklins are at each other’s throats. Ben Franklin thinks his son would gladly have seen him dead on the scaffold. William, meanwhile, accuses his father of being a hypocrite and responsible for William’s grueling stint in jail – which cost him his teeth and hair, at least according to Teachout’s libretto.

Even kite memories cause the sparks to fly.
Even kite memories cause the sparks to fly between Ben and William.

Father and son pleasantly reminisce about Benjamin Franklin’s mythical kite-flying incident, in which the father demonstrated the electrical nature of lightning – but even this becomes cause for resentment, as William exclaims that the kite was in fact his, and they argue over who deserves more credit for the discovery.

This familiar operatic theme of betrayal would seem to guarantee scenes of searing drama. At the performance on Oct. 12, the father-son confrontations were fierce but fell short of hair-raising. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Moravec’s tonal, accessible score, though vigorous and energetic, didn’t quite generate the heat and sustained tension that seemed called for by the dramatic conflict.

Heavy on recitative, the opera offered some appealing arias and duets, but these seemed all too short. Certainly there were some fine moments, such as a lovely though brief duet for William and his fiancée Mary. Another prayerful duet for William and a boy soldier (the fine treble Aidan Arnold) tugged warmly at the heartstrings.

Librettist Terry Teachout and composer Paul Moravec
Librettist Terry Teachout and composer Paul Moravec.

Because this was a workshop production featuring young singers from Kentucky Opera’s Studio Artist program, sets were minimal, costumes were contemporary and the singers were much younger than the characters they portrayed. The young cast was excellent. Marco Cammarota brought a robust, ringing tenor to the role of William. César Méndez-Silvagnoli, as Franklin, displayed a resonant bass. The modest role of Mary was played by the limpid-voiced Danielle Messina. David Roth’s stage direction was efficient and forthright. The opera was presented with piano accompaniment only.

In a Q&A session following the performance, Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and an arts blogger, said The King’s Man may be the first opera ever to focus on a U.S. founding father. Given the mythic status of the founders, one wonders why it took so long for opera composers to embrace them as subjects.

Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Monteux and Nijinksy develop 'The Rite of Spring'
Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Monteux, and Nijinksy develop ‘The Rite of Spring.’

After the main course came dessert: Danse Russe, which premiered in 2011 in Philadelphia. The one-hour opera details the 1913 genesis of Stravinsky’s then-controversial Rite of Spring ballet.

The story is told in Teachout’s rhymed verse (contrasting with the unrhymed libretto of The King’s Man) by the luminaries involved, including the impresario Diaghilev, Stravinsky, conductor Pierre Monteux, and ballet star and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Teachout gives credit largely to Diaghilev for encouraging Stravinsky to produce a score that was crude, brutal, and ugly, to use his words. The opera also suggests that the figures involved knew the value of a good scandal. The Rite of Spring, of course, provoked a riot but would become one of the most influential orchestral works of the 20th century.

Diaghilev often dominates Danse Russe, which resembles a musical with dialogue, solos, and ensembles. The three other main characters lampoon Diaghilev’s arrogance while acknowledging his genius.

Moravec’s often jazzy 'Danse Russe' possesses charm, antic wit.
Moravec’s often jazzy ‘Danse Russe’ possesses charm, antic wit.

Moravec’s often jazzy, syncopated score, which occasionally quotes from Stravinsky, possesses charm, warmth, and an antic wit. One number finds the three Russians (Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky) reminiscing wistfully about the Russian spring. Another piece has Stravinsky and Monteux jauntily dancing a soft-shoe in tribute to Diaghilev.

Danse Russe suffers from a lack of emotional depth. The opera’s characters relate the story, rather than allowing it to be told through dramatic action. It skims along the surface, though often in a dazzling manner. It remains an entertaining diversion.

Danse Russe featured a 14-piece orchestra that rendered the score with clarity and commitment under the solid and sensitive direction of Kimcherie Lloyd. Michael Ramach directed the stage proceedings with ebullience.

The Danse Russe ensemble, as in The King’s Man, included singers in the Kentucky Opera’s Studio Artist Program. They were outstanding. With young singers like these, the future of opera is safe.

The Moravec-Teachout double bill was one in a series of projects developed as the result of a partnership between Kentucky Opera and the University of Louisville School of Music. It’s a program that deserves generous support if the 21st century is to make a meaningful contribution to the standard operatic repertoire.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Paul also blogs under “eGreenville” at greenvilleonline.com.