SANTA FE, N.M., August 16, 2014 – Most nights at the opera involve the production of a single, substantial work. That doesn’t leave many performance opportunities, however, for any number of worthy short or one-act operas. The solution, over many years, has been to stage “double bills,” from time to time, in which a pair of these short or single act operas are staged.
The most popular pairing these days seems to be a double bill featuring Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” but we’ve see others, including Washington National Opera’s unusual 2006 twinning of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” with Bartòk’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the latter of which was directed, appropriately, by “Exorcist” director William Friedkin. Speaking of Puccini, we’ve also seen a “triple bill” consisting of “Schicchi,” “Suor Angelica” and “Il tabarro,” three intense 1918 one-actors the composer collected under the banner of “Il trittico.”
The Santa Fe Opera is making a distinctive contribution to the universe of “double bills” this summer by joining together two short operas we don’t recall encountering as a pair before: Mozart’s increasingly popular bit of fluff known as “The Impressario” and one of Igor Stravinsky’s unfairly lesser-known works, his brief, three-act fantasy-opera “Le Rossignol” (“The Nightingale.”
The reason behind this particular pairing was an impressive and amusing concept cooked up by the company. To wit: let’s make an actual new opera out of this pairing by re-crafting the plot of “The Impressario” to serve as a prelude to “Le Rossignol.”
Those unfamiliar with “The Impressario” might be a bit taken aback by this concept. Why would anyone attempt to tamper with the work of a master?
The answer, however, is fairly simple. “The Impressario” is, in essence, a “party piece” put together, under a sudden commission, by Mozart for the Viennese court. He took a break from composing “Figaro” to do it, composing the music at breakneck speed solely for the purpose of staunching the red ink in his bank account.
In actuality, Mozart’s short “opera” is really what we’d call “incidental music,” an overture and various musical and vocal short-shorts. Mozart’s musical moments were actually meant to flesh out a lengthy, humorous “singspiel” that consisted primarily of topical and political in-jokes meant to amuse the Viennese court and its dozens of guests as part of an evening’s entertainment.
The frame-tale of “The Impressario” is really one of those behind-the-scenes, backstage farces, a bit like Richard Strauss’ much-later “Ariadne auf Naxos,” wherein a party production is slapped together on short notice by two disparate entertainment troupes; and then more or less performed, with predictably awkward and hilarious results.
In “The Impressario,” the running joke involves a harried producer who must audition—and somehow deal with—various obnoxious, self-important divas and divos to choose a cast and speedily cobble together a quick show for his patron. The whole notion seems to have been a fairly obvious joke with reference to what was happening in real life to Mozart and his partners under this rapid-fire commission.
“The Impressario,” such as it was, largely disappeared from the operatic universe not long after its 1786 court performance. But it found an important niche once again around the mid- to late-twentieth century precisely because it consisted of delightful music buried in what was left of a topical 18th century vaudeville act whose satires and in-jokes no longer carried any meaning for modern audiences.
As with Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” a pair of traditions evolved around “The Impressario,” namely that first, it was permissible to translate the sung and spoken dialogue into any language; and second, that it was entirely permissible to re-write the plot with current humor while adjusting it and its characters to suit any occasion.
In keeping with Tradition #2, it’s also not uncommon for these rewrites to include one or more well-known arias from Mozart’s other operas to give the participating singers more chances to show off.
Over the years, we’ve seen Hispanic-themed “Impressarios,” Hollywood movie mogul “Impressarios”—you name the occasion and someone will adapt it. But the Santa Fe Opera’s adaptation takes the cake.
Given the background of tailor-made “Impressarios,” the company, as we’ve just noted, re-conceived its basic plot as a kind of prelude to a real production. In this new reading, early 20th century Russian opera impressario Yuri Yussupovich (Anthony Michaels-Moore), a fan of modern composers and productions that don’t always generate good box-office, is about to hang it up in disgust.
But his pal and business manager, Otto van der Puff (Kevin Burdette) persuades him to try one more time and split the difference, offering the customers some Mozart and, say, something modern from a Russian like maybe Stravinsky, so they could have traditional music along with something new.
Almost before he knows it, Yuri’s back office is besieged by singers looking for a part, some of them over the hill and all of them entirely obnoxious. Comedy and various Mozartian arias ensue, and the disparate cast is reluctantly hired to sing in “Le Rossignol.”
Thus, the pairing is neatly explained and dispatched. The audience has already gotten its Mozart in the first half of the evening. And now they’ll get that radical new Russian piece after the intermission.
Aside from being sung in Russian, there’s nothing particularly radical about Stravinsky’s short opera. It’s early, pre-“Firebird” Stravinsky, and as such, contains some pre-figuring of that score as well as impressionistic and, perhaps, Scriabin-like effects, all lushly orchestrated in a style not unlike that of Rimsky-Korsakov, the brilliant Russian colorist who was one of Stravinsky’s mentors.
“Le Rossignol” is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s poignant fairy tale concerning the redemptive powers of music and of love. In Stravinsky’s opera, the nightingale at the center of the story (Erin Morley) prized for its beautiful song, is discovered in the forest by the Cook (Brenda Rae).
The Cook is urged by the Chamberlain (Kevin Burdette again) to bring the bird to court to cheer up the melancholy emperor (“Impressario” Anthony Michaels-Moore). He is enchanted and uplifted by its lovely voice, desiring her to stay.
But he is soon distracted by a showier, mechanical bird brought in by the Japanese ambassador, and banishes the real nightingale forever. Later, however, when he is near death, the nightingale returns unbidden. Her song banishes the hovering Death as the emperor weeps in gratitude, whereupon she agrees to sing for him all night every night, presumably forever.
The staging for this double bill’s second half is particularly imaginative, and at times, almost ravishingly beautiful. Scenic designer James Macnamera’s somewhat workmanlike office setting for “The Impressario” reappears in “Le Rossignol.” But suddenly and fantastically, before the audience’s eyes, the mundane objects in that office are magically transformed into another world.
The impressario’s office desk evolves into a platform for the emperor. The rehearsal piano slowly becomes a sailing vessel from which the Fisherman (Bruce Sledge) sings the narrative lines describing the nightingale’s story. And the dance studio mirrors become portals through which characters and dancers enter and exit.
At the same time, wonderful abstract and impressionistic morphing oriental images are continuously projected on the walls above, providing something of an Oscar Wildish, art nouveau feeling that matches Stravinsky’s score to perfection.
Created for this production by Fabio Toblini, the costuming for this half of the evening was equally exotic, with flashes of bright, Chinese and Japanese colors predominating, contrasting with the plain gray of the little nightingale, helping to underscore the thematics of the story.
Both short operas were superbly directed by Michael Gieleta who helped create a sense of barely controlled chaos in “Impressario” while shifting gears to conjure up a mistier, more languid mythic sensation in “Rossignol.”
Mr. Gieleta’s efforts were aided considerably by the sparkling, up-to-date English dialogue of British playwright and translator Ranjit Bolt who in turn made use of Penny Black’s translations from the original. The English language version was another good choice by the Santa Fe Opera, enabling the audience to get most of the humor in a way that projected titles could not, although they were duly supplied. That said, the singer/actors’ diction was good enough that you didn’t need the titles at least 80 percent of the time.
The singing of all the cast members was delightfully on target, whether they were impersonating nasty singers in “Impressario,” or members of the court in “Rossignol.”
Although she played only a minor part in “Rossignol,” contralto Meridith Arwady came close to stealing the first part of the show as an aging diva whose party piece was her unique rendition of Don Giovanni’s well-known “Champagne Aria”—sung, astonishingly, in its original baritone range.
The primary cast of “Impressario” re-appeared in “Rossignol,” and, from small roles to larger ones, performed each of their roles with great sensitivity.
Bruce Sledge nicely articulated the moods and emotions of the opera’s Fisherman-narrator, while Anthony Michaels-Moore appropriately articulated the Emperor’s coldness and haughtiness.
But clearly, the star turn in this program’s second half belonged to soprano Erin Morley. In the most silvery and sweetest of tones, she delivered Stravinsky’s ravishing music with a dreamy elegance that added a palpable magic to the story whenever she appeared. Her performance was memorably, intensely affecting and remained as a presence long after the opera had concluded.
We’d be remiss if we failed to mention the nice work contributed by the small cast of excellent dancers in both operas. And, of course, another hat tip to the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, particularly for its marvelous shadings and interpretation of Stravinsky’s score under the lead of the company’s conductor emeritus, Kenneth Montgomery.
This was the final production we attended in Santa Fe earlier this month, and it was in many ways the most haunting and memorable—something quite unexpected for two short operatic works that seemed to have nothing in common with one another. Until we saw what the Santa Fe Opera had done with them.
Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ stars out of 4)
Santa Fe Opera’s final performances of “The Impressario” and “Le Rossignol” concluded on August 15.