Vivente stages almost-unheard-of operas


Double bill especially challenges the soprano

October 15, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It looks like the theme of our season has turned out to be `men behaving badly,'" says Opera Vivente's founding artistic director John Bowen.

You'll find evidence of that in March, when the company offers one of Mozart's early operas, La finta giardiniera. And you couldn't miss it in the season-opening production this weekend, a double bill of Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor and Giacomo Puccini's first opera, Le Villi.

The two pieces, written roughly a century apart, share some common ground.

"They both have an element of legend or myth," Bowen says. "And they both call for the same three voice types, which makes for a nice double bill from a logistical standpoint."

Mollicone's 1978 one-act opera, commissioned by Central City Opera in Colorado, was inspired by a real barroom and a real face painted on its floor - the Teller House Bar (subsequently rechristened Face Bar), next door to the opera house. The story, with a libretto by John Bowman, invents a colorful tale around the unknown woman's portrait.

Told in flashback, we discover a love triangle in 1878 went terribly awry in the bar. A customer who can't pay his bill offers to paint a likeness of his one and only love; the bartender recognizes the image as his own girlfriend and challenges the man. The woman in question is accidentally shot when she comes between the two.

Back in the present, another triangle erupts in violence and another woman is killed, falling onto the face on the barroom floor. The same three singers handle all the parts.

"It's the only opera I know of where the soprano gets killed twice - all in 25 minutes," Bowen says.

Puccini's 1884 opera, with a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, draws on old Eastern European legends about a feminine spirit known as a "willi," well-known to ballet fans, thanks to Adolphe Adam's Giselle.

"These folkloric willis were women who died waiting for their lovers to return," Bowen says. "They became the undead who haunt the woods and kill their faithless lovers. The `Vilja' song from Lehar's The Merry Widow is about the same kind of creature, only kinder."

The story involves Roberto, who heads off to collect a fortune he has inherited. He promises to return soon to his adoring fiancee, Anna, but he ends up falling in with a wicked city woman and "obscene orgies" while away.

Anna dies of a broken heart before a chastened Roberto returns. Now one of the willis (or, in Italian, villi), Anna haunts the cad and leads him into the dance of death that is the trademark revenge of these ghostly ladies. (The character names will be Anglicized here; Opera Vivente will perform the work in English.)

This is not the usual stuff Italian operas are made of, but Le villi nonetheless offered the young Puccini an opportunity to reveal his considerable gifts, especially for orchestration. In two short acts, lasting little more than an hour, the composer pours out some memorable material, especially for the soprano and tenor.

"It's amazing how much the music is already that of the voice we associated with the mature Puccini," Bowen says. "The soprano and tenor arias could be from Manon Lescaut or La Boheme. How did it happen that someone so young who had never written for the stage could suddenly have this voice?"

The mature Puccini would not have bothered with such a flawed libretto, though. Fontana's text is something of a mess, originally requiring the narration (and/or publication in the program booklet) of two poems that fill in plot details during orchestral intermezzos between the two acts.

"Narration is very difficult to do without sounding hokey," Bowen says. "We cut it. I inserted some stage business during the intermezzo to help explain things.

"And, since the villi of the title get no mention prior to the second act, and you have this supernatural presence all of a sudden, I try to have them as a physical presence in the opera earlier to counteract that. I show them at the beginning looking with a curious yearning at the banquet celebrating the betrothal of Anne and Robert."

Le villi has rarely been staged anywhere since its premiere; The Face on the Barroom Floor has enjoyed many productions but is still a novelty for many opera-goers. This double bill is thus doubly attractive.

Singing in both works will be soprano Melinda Clonts, tenor Byron Jones and baritone Daniel Olson. Bowen is the director; Aaron Sherber conducts.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 26 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $28, $20 for students and seniors. Call 410-547-7997.

Opera sans words

For those craving opera without words, not to mention spectacular music, check out the Baltimore Symphony's program this week. German conductor Jun Markl will lead the ensemble in extensive orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. You can count on such favorites as Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried's Funeral March, among many other indelible moments.

Also on the bill is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, with another noted German artist, Lars Vogt, as soloist. There's even room for something much too rare on a BSO concert these days - contemporary American music, in the form of Daniel Brewbaker's Blue Fire.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $26 to $72. Call 410-783-8000.

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