By Jason Victor Serinus
DALLAS — Long before the curtain rose on the Oct. 30 Dallas Opera world premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, expectations were high for something far less sobering than their first operatic collaboration, Dead Man Walking. In fact, thanks to any number of pre-premiere interviews and press releases, the co-commission with San Diego Opera gave many an indication that it would be a case of camp in extremis.
The story revolves around the opening night premiere of Vittorio Bazzetti’s long-lost 180-year old opera, Rosa Dolorosa, figlia di Pompei, which has been unearthed in a drawer at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg by world famous mezzo-soprano Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato). With the support of American Opera founder and artistic director Winnie Flato (Frederica von Stade), Scott is determined to unveil the opera in her all-American hometown. She will, of course, play the lead, Rosa Dolorosa. But when she discovers that the premiere is scheduled for the same night as the home team’s first National Championship – “Go, Grizzlies!” – the stage is set for farce.
With promises of great singing from a cast that included, in addition to mezzos DiDonato and von Stade, soprano Ailyn Pérez, baritone Nathan Gunn, and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, the only question that arose was how the opera’s creators would handle the “moral” of the story. Given the pre-premiere proclamation that “The fate of the company hangs in the balance as opera star Arden Scott discovers that greatness is truly a matter of heart,” could Heggie and McNally possibly achieve profundity amidst hilarity without resorting to sentimental schlock?
The answer, as it turned out, was “No.” Great Scott’s serious moments at times seemed tacked on, as if a hilarious evening of operatic entertainment could not possibly stand on its own. But that did not stop it from becoming an oft-exhilarating, occasionally side-splitting exercise in operatic entertainment.
Heggie’s overture, beautifully paced by conductor Patrick Summers, lost no time in setting expectations. With the spoiler alert that this review cannot help but spill a few of the beans, any curtain opener that segues from a hazy, ghost-like riff on “The Red River Valley” to a mish-mash of pseudo-Rossini and nondescript Broadway cannot possibly end in a funeral march.
If the overture was clever, some of the plot developments and casting bordered on brilliance. Take, for example, the machinations of Tatyana Bakst (Pérez), a young, talented, and fiercely ambitious Eastern European soprano who will stop at nothing to achieve stardom. Her attempts to dethrone Arden Scott may have come across as an unquestionably clichéd albeit significantly milder version of the classic back-biting rivalry exemplified by Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in the 1950 movie All About Eve. But the libretto’s welcome deviations from the expected bitch-fight outcome made it possible to sit back and enjoy the fun without the need to fasten one’s seat belt in expectation of the bumpy ride ahead.
Ditto for the very gay love angle between Roane Heckle (Roth Costanzo), the stage manager who runs a very tight ship, and Eric Gold (bass Kevin Burdette), the conductor with a soft spot for cute boys. After typecasting a slim, adorable, and fast-moving countertenor as a pushy, high-voiced sissy, and a taller and far deeper-voiced bass as an older yet romantically insecure conductor, Heggie and McNally offered an alternate take on what could have devolved into a stereotypical Will and Grace scenario. Roth Costanzo and Burdette’s interplay was delightful.
But the stereotypes didn’t stop there. Sid Taylor (Gunn), Arden’s high-school boyfriend who resurfaces a few years after both characters have divorced their mates, may have kept his shirt on this time around , but towering Wendell Swann (Michael Mayes), a handsome matinee idol who’s known to many as a Don Juan, most certainly did not. Wendell’s major agony – do they love me more for my voice or for my pecs? – got one of the longest laughs in an evening filled with memorable one-liners.
Equally winning were any number of plot twists and turns and suspensions – you’ll have to see it to figure out what that means – that seemed right out of slapstick farce. Central to success were the many invocations of contemporary life and mythology. Tatyana’s big break, for example, came when she stepped in for Arden to deliver a game opening version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” whose excesses made many a wannabe diva’s boundless expositions at Amateur Night at the Apollo seem tasteful by comparison. Cell phones, tweets, and peer reviews also drew their fair share of laughs. Time after time, Heggie and McNally went for the funny bone, and succeeded admirably. As did set and costume designer Bob Crowley’s volcanic eruption.
The music, too, was intentionally filled with droll stereotypes. By employing dramatically inappropriate elongated trills, multi-octave runs, and staccato effects in Rosa’s cabaletta “Cosa m’importa” and a climactic mad scene, Heggie tipped us off that Vittorio Bazzetti was not unjustly ignored. Those familiar with Rossini’s idiom quickly realized just how second-rate Bazzetti was.
Special kudos go to von Stade, as Winnie Flato, the most lovable arts administrator of them all. With her character described as “Arden’s first champion and now the principal patron/benefactor of American Opera; her [unseen] husband is the owner of the Grizzlies, headed to the Super Bowl,” her role was clearly tailor-made. Attired by Crowley in sparkling blue sports cap and jacket, von Stade was every inch the natural stage animal as she freely moved about, displayed legs that would have left Marlene Dietrich envious, and played her part for all its worth. At 70, she sings with admirable strength and steadiness while retaining the ability to touch the heart like few others.
DiDonato was a wonder. With every technical effect perfectly executed, she proved herself once again a star. In the admirably clear, superior acoustics of Dallas’ Winspear Opera House, the particular heart-tugging quality of her voice came through admirably. And thanks to director Jack O’Brien and choreographer John de los Santos, her acting and movement – everyone’s really – was dynamic and convincing.
Pérez sounded overly thick at the top of her considerable range, as if so much time in big houses has encouraged her to push at the top rather than let the voice rise naturally. Be that as it may, the inflated quality of her instrument worked to her absurd character’s advantage. Her acting and hilariously exaggerated accent were superb.
Roth Costanzo was astounding, singing with a power rarely heard from a countertenor. He also moved about the stage with total ease, which gave greater impact to his character’s transition from silly to serious. Burdette shone most as the Ghost of Bazzetti. Although he needed to resort to falsetto for his highest notes, the beautiful resonance of his voice made his character’s dispensation of sage advice believable.
Gunn remains one of the most suave and seductively voiced baritones around, which means he was typecast to perfection. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that voice? Mayes not only sang quite well as Wendell Swann, but also managed to pump his gym-toned pecs and strut about in a most hilarious manner. Rodell Rosel may not have the tenor voice of the century, but he made of his silly character, Anthony Candolino, something quite enjoyable. Mark Hancock was adorable in the speaking role of Sid ’s 11-year old son.
The story stumbled when it tried too hard to touch the heart. There were one too many Hallmark moments. Heggie missed a major opportunity when the Ghost of Bazzetti’s exchange with Arden primed us for the most moving of mad scenes, but the silly music made depth impossible. If only he had allowed DiDonato to briefly achieve the profundity of her recent portrayals of Bellini’s Romeo, Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, and his own Camille Claudel.
In the end, so what? Great Scott is a hoot. Its music by itself may not call for an original cast recording, but a Blu-ray and DVD of this wonderful production is a necessity. Only the stuffy could possibly resist.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, CVNA, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.