December 4, 2013
A Deep South opera and a Verdi standard
For the Herald
As far as the local lyrical offering goes, Buenos Aires is a study in contrasts
Strange things happen in our opera milieu. There are the standard events, of course, but also mindless experiments incorrectly referred to as “operas” and quirky works that add some pep to the audiences’ normal regime. Recently, there was spoken word piece accompanied by music; a technical word exists for that, and it’s “melodrama,” not “opera” as it was called.
Quirky opera indeed: Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, an Argentine première and a valid one at that. I was asked to attend an advanced rehearsal, the pre-dress rehearsal. There were minor matters to adjust, but I believe there’s a remote chance that the actual performances will have strong differences worked into it.
You will probably remember a Robert Redford movie called The Sting, and if so you might have left the cinema whistling a Scott Joplin rag. Fortunately he left us a good number of piano roll recordings, and I treasure two cassettes with two round dozens of rags by and with Joplin, an excellent pianist. He influenced such greats as Stravinsky (we have three rags from him!) and Hindemith (who manages to combine it with Bach).
There may be more, but there are at least three operas about Deep South black people that are really attractive, the best of which is, to my mind, the finest opera ever written in the US: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an amazing mystery with which the American first-generation of Ukrainian Jewish extraction earned a profound empathy with the mores of Deep South black people. He wrote the very best music for a tragic and moving love story, and this at a time when racism was still deeply ingrained in the South(1935). Porgy... was done twice in BA, both times with an imported American company: 1955 and 1992; they count as highlights in my long experience with opera.
Much earlier in 1904 the English composer Frederick Delius, living in Florida as a planter, wrote his black opera, Koanga (I have the excellent recording conducted by Charles Groves). Lighter and less idiomatic tham Gershwin’s, it’s still a charming piece worth knowing and an admixture of the Creole culture.
Joplin’s Treemonisha (1915) is very different, a willingly simple fable with straightforward music, words by Joplin himself, duration 90 minutes. The original version is with piano. The ingenuity is already in the title: well, Monisha found a three-year-old girl under a tree and decided to adopt her; hence, Treemonisha! Gunther Schuller, the orchestrator of the splendid Houston recording, tellingly says: “It is a period piece full of innocent charm”, and “not a ragtime opera.”
The story is easily told: a wizard with a curious name (Zodzetrick) wants to sell Treemonisha an amulet, she rejects it; later on, she is abducted; when she is about to be thrown into a cauldron, a friend of hers, Remus, frightens the wizards away with a scarecrow they take to be the Devil; in a final scene the abducters are pardoned. Simple moral truths: “Ignorance is punishable at a time of illumination”; superstition must be fought; convert wrongdoers into good people. As Treemonisha is the only educated person among them, the community asks her to lead them.
The music alternates between narrative recitatives, songs, choruses and dances. The opera was never performed in Joplin’s lifetime and was forgotten until his collected works were published in 1971 by Vera Brodsky Lawrence. The opera is set on a plantation in Arkansas in 1884. There are three acts and 27 numbers, ending with A real slow drag, sung and danced (“hop and skip”).
Three performances are offered at the Empire by a new group, Oíd Opera. The musical director is also the orchestrator: Leandro Soldano. In the small orchestra two members seemed to me outstanding, the pianist and the trumpeter. Others need improving. The producer, Nicolás Isasi, respected the piece’s naiveté with simple movements, and the stage props were essentially corn stalks, cotton plants and bales of hay (María Dubini). The performers were in blackface, naturally enough (this isn’t a black company).
The group of little-known but talented singers included the fresh presence of Natalia Albero as a tall, lithe Treemonisha with a bright soprano voice, well matched by her adoptive mother Monisha (Lucía Alonso, mezzosoprano), the booming bass of Ned, her “father” (Carlos Ammirata), the nice timbre of Matías Klemm (Remus, tenor). I found Ignacio Agudo as Zodzetrick too smooth, lacking in menace (baritone). The small choir was enthusiastic both in its singing and dancing. Worth your while.
Verdi’s La forza del destino
I have to be brief about a concert version with about half an hour of cuts of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Roma (Avellaneda). Two singers dominated: the easy professionalism of baritone Omar Carrión and the strong personality of soprano Haydée Dabusti, always intense and accurate (though I missed some softer singing at appropriate moments). Tenor Juan González Cueto started poorly but later found better line and voice. Luciano Straguzzi was a correct bass, Vanina Trifoglio an agreeable Preziosilla (she skipped some high notes), Antonello Tramonti a wholly inadequate buffo baritone and Pablo Basualdo a rather dry bass in three roles.
Conductor César Tello was the dynamic conductor of a passable orchestra (de la Municipalidad de Avellaneda) and an agreeable chorus (Instituto Municipal de Música de Avellaneda; Armando Garrido, director).