Roster increases to 10 singers and 2 pianist/coaches
Program includes mentorship by new Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt, voice teachers Diana Soviero and William Stone, and guest master teachers Carol Vaness and Peter Kazaras
Performance highlights include:
Several world premieres throughout the season
A showcase on February 27, 2014
A special performance of The Magic Flute on May 16, 2014
Free concerts at the Kennedy Center
Washington National Opera has just announced the roster of emerging artists and renowned vocal coaches engaged for the 12th season of its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Under the leadership of new program director Michael Heaston, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program will grow from 10 artists to 12, increase its number of performances throughout the season, and expand its training regimen to include mentorship by its new Artist in Residence, the acclaimed American soprano Deborah Voigt, as well as voice teachers Diana Soviero and William Stone, guest master teachers Carol Vaness and Peter Kazaras, and visiting vocal coach Kathleen Kelly. The new class of young artists will participate in several world premiere productions during the 2013-2014 season, including new commissions from WNO’s American Opera Initiative and Jeanine Tesori’s new family opera The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me. The program will also continue its exchange with the Bolshoi Young Artists Opera Program and will send several artists to Moscow for a two-week period in 2014.
The 2013-2014 Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists are:
Christian Bowers, United States (baritone, first year)
Jacqueline Echols, United Sates (soprano, first year)
Norman Garrett, United States (baritone, second year)
Yuri Gorodetski, Belarus (tenor, second year)
Soloman Howard, United States (bass, third year)
Yi Li, China (tenor, first year)
Kevin Miller, United States (pianist/coach, second year)
Tomoko Nakayama, Japan (pianist/coach, first year)
Deborah Nansteel, United States (mezzo-soprano, first year)
Patrick O’Halloran, United States (tenor, first year)
Shantelle Przybylo, Canada (soprano, second year)
Wei Wu, China (bass, first year)
Both Mr. Gorodetski and Mr. Li will represent their home countries in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition later this summer.
“The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is a vital part of Washington National Opera’s mission, and I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to revitalize and grow the number of participants as well as increase their involvement in our programming,” said WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “Michael Heaston has selected an excellent group of singers and pianists for next season, and I look forward to introducing our new WNO ‘home team’ to audiences in Washington.”
A world-class coaching roster
Joining the coaching roster for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program’s 2013-2014 season is Deborah Voigt, the acclaimed American soprano best known for her dramatic interpretations of the leading roles in operas by Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini. Ms. Voigt also stars as Isolde in WNO’s season-opening production of Tristan and Isolde in September 2013. In the newly created role of Artist in Residence, Ms. Voigt will work with the young artists throughout the season, conducting individual coaching sessions, presenting group classes on a variety of repertoire, and leading career roundtable discussions. In the summer of 2011, Ms. Voigt served as the first Artist in Residence at the inaugural season of the new Glimmerglass Festival and worked with the young artists there; the new WNO position will be her first long-term mentoring role with a young artist program.
“I look forward to working with these talented young artists and sharing the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career with the next generation,” said Ms. Voigt. “Francesca Zambello and Michael Heaston have exciting plans for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and as the Program’s first Artist in Residence, I’m proud and eager to be a part of this effort.”
The young artists will continue to work with voice teachers Diana Soviero, one of the foremost interpreters of the verismo repertoire and now one of the most in-demand voice teachers in New York, and William Stone, esteemed baritone and member of the voice faculty at the renowned Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Lyric soprano Carol Vaness will have a weeklong residency in January 2014 as a guest master teacher focusing on interpretations of Mozart. The young artists will welcome guest vocal coach Kathleen Kelly, who has led the music staffs of the Vienna State Opera and Houston Grand Opera, for a series of residencies throughout the season, and will continue their work with resident vocal coach Louis Salemno. The coaching faculty, led by principal coach Ken Weiss, also includes Michael Baitzer, Anthony Manoli, and Yelena Kurdina, among others. WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin will also work with the young artists during the season.
Stage director Peter Kazaras, the artistic director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program and the director of Opera UCLA, will do intense dramatic work with the young artists as a guest master teacher. Nick Olcott, interim director of the Opera Studio at the University of Maryland at College Park, will continue as the program’s drama coach.
By Thomas May
Even before its official Broadway opening, Show Boat was already being hailed as “a milestone in musical comedy production,” as a critic wrote during the Pittsburgh leg of the multi-city preview tour. The very first public performance had taken place on November 15, 1927 at the National Theatre (just two miles from the site of the future Kennedy Center).
That original version of the show ran between four and four-and-a-half hours. By the time Show Boat sailed into Manhattan, it had been subjected to considerable trimming, subbing in of new numbers, and additional tailoring. These kinds of tweaking are normal during the creation of any musical (and of many operas to boot), but Show Boat’s legacy includes an unusual amount of revisionism—to the point that, as critic Frank Rich remarks, “the show has never really had a fixed text.” Considerable reshuffling of individual songs and particular scenes occurred throughout later revivals supervised by the show’s creators as well as posthumously.
That process has continued up to the present day. For the most-admired of the Show Boats on film, for example— released in 1936—Kern and Hammerstein added three new songs. The very last song Kern was working on before his sudden death in 1945 was intended for a fresh revival of the show (“Nobody Else But Me”). The three-CD studio cast recording from 1988 on EMI includes all of the material written and later cut from Show Boat and presents the authentic original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
On the night of December 27, 1927, the house was packed for the opening of Show Boat at the legendary Ziegfeld Theatre north of Times Square, an impressive art deco playhouse which itself had only recently opened (and which, sadly, was demolished in 1966). The stage, too, must have seemed to flood over during the ensembles: the chorus alone totaled 96 singers. Advance ticket sales had broken records as word circulated that this show would offer something remarkably different from the usual song and dance spectacles.
But as the curtain descended, “a silent shock gripped the audience,” writes Oscar Andrew Hammerstein (grandson of the man responsible for Show Boat’s book and lyrics) in a recent biography of one of the most illustrious families in American theater history. A momentary panic seized the show’s creators until, after a nerve-wracking pause, “the audience found its voice and a sustained ovation beat against the curtain.”
Composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) shared an ambitious vision for what they wanted to accomplish in Show Boat. Hammerstein later recalled that when Kern first turned him on to the idea of adapting the far-ranging novel of the same name recently published by Edna Ferber (1885-1968), each set about drafting an independent scenario: the treatments both came up with proved to be astonishingly similar.
The story’s framework, spanning four decades, clearly offered enticing possibilities to create an authentically American stage epic. And the phenomenon of the floating theaters known as show boats—already a fading tradition by the 1920s—provided an irresistible metaphorical vehicle. Entertainment itself could be used to reflect on our fluid, ever-changing cultural landscape. Meanwhile, the multiple story lines involving five different couples suggested something beyond the melodramatic contrivances of the actual subplots: through these Kern and Hammerstein could trace not just the optimism but the reality of the American dream—including its disappointments.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1925 for So Big, the Michigan-born Ferber was both a critical success at the time and a bestseller. A good indication of what the Broadway musical pre-Show Boat entailed can be seen in her immediate refusal to grant rights when the idea of adapting her novel was initially proposed. Ferber had every reason to fear that her story would be trivialized into a peppy, feel-good string of tunes and dance numbers featuring over-the-top costumes and pretty chorines—at least based on the prevailing Broadway model.
A wide gulf separated the escapist fun of the typical musical comedy from the thought-provoking spoken drama being pioneered by a new generation of playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill. Plays like O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and The Great God Brown had paved the way for a serious homegrown American theater movement in recent seasons. The lyric stage, though, was still dominated either by fantasies riffing on the Cinderella archetype (e.g., the operetta The Wildflower, an earlier Hammerstein collaboration) or by revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, which dressed up the vaudeville tradition with spectacular visuals.
Kern and Hammerstein honed their craft working on variants of these musical fashions before their own first collaboration in 1925 with the circus-themed Sunny. And in the process they had already been experimenting with ways to integrate songs into a show in a more organic way. Kern, who was Hammerstein’s senior by a decade, in particular had learned much from a string of scores he wrote in the late teens for the 299-seat Princess Theatre near the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street.
The intimacy of the Princess stage precluded big extravaganzas, encouraging experiments with a more sophisticated integration of song and plot instead. Julie’s song “Bill” in the second act of Show Boat in fact originates from this period, when Kern collaborated with P.G. Wodehouse, author of “Bill”’s lyrics. Its tragic tone was deemed unsuitable for an earlier musical, but in its new context (and as adapted by Hammerstein) “Bill” movingly portrays the emotional pain Julie has endured since the breakup of her marriage.
So it’s not surprising that Kern was able to talk Ferber out of her initial refusal to grant rights. Her novel, ironically, hasn’t stood the test of time—much of it feels awkwardly dated, to put it mildly—while Show Boat the musical is more than an enduring classic in its own right but a game-changer: it revealed an entirely new perspective on what the American musical could encompass. Even more, aspects of Show Boat’s influence can be felt in another epic effort of the American musical stage, George Gershwin’s one-of-a-kind “folk opera” Porgy and Bess (which premiered in 1935, though Gershwin initially hit on the idea as early as 1926).
In part because the Great Depression arrived so soon after it was first introduced, a delay intervened before Show Boat could exert its full effect. Escapism again became the desired antidote in the 1930s, with radio taking the place of unaffordable theater tickets. The new potential unveiled by Show Boat went largely untapped until Hammerstein began collaborating with Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma! (1943) and, even further, until West Side Story (1957) presented an unflinchingly tragic musical of social conflict. Frank Rich even sees Show Boat as a harbinger of “the modern Broadway ‘concept’ musical” with its double-edged metaphor of the Mississippi River as time itself, “which both opens and heals the characters’ wounds.” (Another Ferber novel provided the grist for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical Saratoga in 1959, which, despite a Tony for costume design, has ended up becoming little more than a footnote.)
By today, of course, Show Boat’s innovations are all too easy to take for granted—all the more so since so many of its songs have in the meantime become detached from the show as independent standards with “afterlives” of their own. But the opportunity to experience a full-scale production that recognizes the theatrical and musical abundance of its creators’ vision brings home the magnificent cumulative effect of each number. These songs serve on one level as vivid character portraits that form an evocative counterpoint with each other: “Make Believe,” for example, plays Ravenal’s seductive but unreliable charm off the stoic realism Joe expresses in “Ol’ Man River.”
On another level, the score shrewdly conveys the story’s panoramic passage of time—and the larger perspective of American identity—by presenting a kind of montage of changing styles. Nostalgic Stephen Foster parlor songs, ballyhoos, passionate operetta, melodrama, burlesque, torch song, blues, ragtime, spirituals—all these and more are heard but also shaped by Kern’s overriding artistry in a way that transcends mere eclecticism. The New York Times obituary of the composer in 1945 noted that Kern modestly referred to himself as a “musical clothier” who wrote music “to both the situations and the lyrics in plays” rather than to score a hit.
Along with its organic integration of song, story, and character, Show Boat was innovative for its content, confronting the very real problems of American racism and the failure of romantic illusions. The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, the hugely successful architect of the light-hearted entertainment (including his Ziegfeld Follies) that Show Boat would challenge, himself recognized the significance of this material and eagerly stepped in to provide the needed backing as producer: “This is the best musical comedy I have been fortunate enough to get a hold of…the opportunity of my life,” he wrote Kern. At the same time, Ziegfeld insisted on compromises, such as removing Queenie’s “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” as too gloomy, even though it figured prominently in Kern’s original score.
From an entirely different perspective, some modern-day critics have vehemently objected to Show Boat as exploitative, a work that even preserves and codifies racist attitudes. Yet a closer look at what actually happens—and the music which expresses it—shows the creators’ compassion for the injustice suffered by African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction Deep South: a compassion as genuine as that for Magnolia enduring the alienation of modern city life. Theater critic John Lahr notes that “the black experience, in both its triumph and its tragedy, is at the heart of the show’s perception of America.”
In this company debut production of Show Boat, Washington National Opera pays tribute to a masterpiece that called generic distinctions into question and forever redefined the scope of musical theater—and that remains deeply relevant and involving on its own terms. As Lahr aptly writes, Show Boat, “like all democratic experiments,” has been “constantly revising itself.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Kelley Rourke
Show Boat, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, spans four decades of American life and features a sprawling cast of characters. In addition to the diverse group of performers and workers aboard Captain Andy Hawks’ floating theater, there is, wrote Ferber, “such an audience as could be got together in no other kind of theater in the world. Farmers, laborers, Negroes; housewives, children, yokels, lovers; roustabouts, dock wallopers, backwoodsmen, rivermen, gamblers.”
Perhaps the novel’s most pervasive presence—after Magnolia Hawks, the young girl who grows up on the Cotton Blossom—is the river itself, which is whipped into a terrific, unexpected storm as the story opens. The mighty Mississippi also runs through the musical version of the story, created in 1927 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. At key moments, the action pauses for a majestic reflection on “Ol’ man river,” who “jes’ keep rollin’ along.”
In the decades during which the impassive river carries the Cotton Blossom, he rolls through an America of growth—and growing pains. The country witnesses the openings of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show; the first “talkies”; “Jim Crow” laws; the introduction of the Model T Ford; the Ziegfeld Follies; the Parliament of the World’s Religions; the founding of the NAACP; the sinking of the Titanic; the completion of New York’s Grand Central Terminal and D.C.’s Union Station; Prohibition; Marian Anderson’s debut with the New York Philharmonic; the passage of women’s suffrage; the first trans-Atlantic flight; and the introduction of Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, and Juicy Fruit gum.
The rapidly changing American landscape is more than just backdrop for Show Boat. Prominent in the plot’s rich tapestry are timeless yarns of romance and ambition, but Ferber—and later, Kern and Hammerstein—did not hesitate to weave in more controversial threads, such as racism and addiction. At Show Boat’s 1927 premiere, audience members may have felt a mixture of pride, dismay, and hope as the story sailed through three decades of recent history before finally docking at the present day.
Nearly a century later, we bring a slightly different set of sensibilities into the theater. Show Boat’s integrated cast no longer strikes us as daring, nor does Kern’s inclusion of songs modeled after traditional African-American music. (When Ferber wrote her novel, she was inspired by the very recent introduction of spirituals to the concert stage by artists including Roland Hayes, Jules Bledsoe, and Paul Robeson.) However, we can appreciate, as early audiences could not, how Show Boat represents a first step in the creation of a new American art form. In a period otherwise dominated by vaudevillian revues, Kern and Hammerstein crafted a serious drama whose magnificent score was an essential part of its storytelling. As Washington National Opera prepares to celebrate American composers in the coming seasons, it is only appropriate that we begin at the beginning, with this marvelous work that Francesca Zambello has called “our first American opera.”
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
“Casta diva” is the most famous scene in all of Bellini—and a paradigm of his subtle, sustained, dramatically enthralling way with bel canto. No matter how ravishingly beautiful this music sounds in isolation it acquires an incalculable richness when heard as it was intended, within the context of the long expository sequence for which Norma’s entrance provides the climax. Bellini and Romani masterfully build up expectations for this entrance scene and cavatina, which in turn unfolds in several parts. (An instrumental equivalent this strategy always makes me think of is the long-delayed arrival of the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.)
The opera’s backdrop of dramatic oppositions takes shape here as the priestess ecstatically invokes the “chaste,” peaceful moon goddess in contrast to the vengeful Irminsul, god of war. For her prayer Bellini gives the soprano long, seemingly endless garlands of mesmerizing melody which in turn weave in and out of the Druids’ choral chanting. At the same time, this is hardly pretty “note spinning” for its own sake. Bellini is showing us Norma’s power and authority as the figure who engenders collective religious ecstasy—even as he foregrounds the priestess in her commanding individuality, her difference: the very dilemma at the heart of the drama.
Musicologist David Kimbell aptly calls her cantabile a “liturgical aria” notable for its formality. Norma leads her people in the solemn mistletoe ceremony and then consults with the Gauls, whose music gives unity to the scene as a whole and reinforces the social framework. But after this Norma gives vent to her private feelings for Pollione in the exuberant, faster-paced cabaletta that concludes the scene. Here the flowery vocal lines almost seem to hint at a defiant denial, while, as Kimbell puts it, “a kind of emotional friction is set up between the solo voice in the foreground and the broader musical background against which it is set.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
Since this year Verdi and Wagner share a major anniversary—the Italian master was born just four and a half months after little Richard—we’re bound to see fresh assessments of how each of them crossed an operatic Rubicon, transforming the medium forever. It took several decades for Wagner’s “music of the future” to grip the collective imagination, but by the time Verdi began producing his mature masterpieces in the 1850’s, Rossini had long since retired from an immensely lucrative career and both Donizetti and Bellini were dead.
Among the lasting spells both Verdi and Wagner cast on later composers through their innovations was the urge to reconfigure the balance between music and theater, beauty of sound and dramatic truth. But this also caused the stock of a preceding golden age to crash. A wealth of remarkable operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti fell into oblivion, along with the impressive spectacles of French grand opera developed by Giacomo Meyerbeer and his peers.
It took the genius and charisma of performers like Maria Callas to spark a renaissance of interest in the second half of the last century in the Italian tradition inherited and superseded by Verdi: the tradition of bel canto, a blend of vocal style, melody, and the phrasing ideally suited to it that remains inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. Each composer put a personal stamp on it: the bel canto of Rossini is poles apart from that cultivated by Bellini. Ultimately the bel canto ideal cannot be described but must be experienced in its full dramatic context.
Thanks to the revivals of operas such as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—which was presented last fall as Washington National Opera’s season opener—several works that were once jumbled together as examples of a supposedly one-size-fits-all bel canto tradition have been reclaimed from operatic limbo. In fact, it turns out that much of the intervening bias against bel canto as a whole had been based on questionable premises: especially the assumption that the style always required musical values to overshadow dramatic ones.
Yet one work that had remained securely in the repertory since its premiere held the key to what was being missed all this time. Norma’s triumphant premiere at La Scala, on the day after Christmas in 1831, marked more than the historical high point of a style that would soon be eclipsed. (Bellini himself was fated to die less than four years later at the age of 33.) Its inspired balance of musical characterization, atmosphere, poetry, and mythic resonance revealed the full potential of the bel canto aesthetic. The reason Norma survived the decline of this style’s fortunes is that it so clearly defies the clichés of superficiality and “canary-fancying” that became associated with bel canto.
Bellini anticipates Puccini (and Verdi, for that matter) in his obsession with breathing life into his characters not just in a general sense but by focusing on details and nuances of their words. His partnership with the poet and classical scholar Felice Romani ranks among the most impressive composer-librettist teams in all opera, though the collaboration itself was often strained. Romani, by consensus the preeminent librettist of his generation, furnished texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas (and for Rossini and Donizetti as well, including Anna Bolena); he himself was a perfectionist not content with merely setting a dramatic conflict in motion.
In the case of Norma, both Romani and Bellini shared a fascination with the novelty of the setting, which pits a familiar Mediterranean world of masculine power (represented by Pollione and the Romans) against a mysterious one that values nature and the feminine spirit. Around these two poles, the relationships of the protagonists underscore a larger clash of cultures and values: between South and North, empire and occupied outpost in Gaul, civilization and “barbarians”—but the opera’s perspective directs our sympathies toward the Other on the frontier of the familiar. The drama meanwhile turns on well-worn conflicts between desire and duty, between private and social identities. But instead of spinning this into a predictable cautionary tale, Bellini uses these conflicts to probe fundamental contradictions in the human psyche.
As we watch the screw tighten dramatically, it’s easy to imagine how exciting Bellini must have found this opportunity to explore his heroine’s tremendous emotional range in musical terms. The role of Norma proved an ideal vehicle to exploit the gifts of his favorite singer, Giuditta Pasta (who also happened to create the role of Anna Bolena). Contemporary descriptions of Pasta’s unusual voice and passionate stage presence uncannily foreshadow the virtues for which Maria Callas would be praised more than a century later. Stendhal wrote at length of Pasta, remarking that she “resorts to [extensive ornamentations] only when they have a direct contribution to make to the dramatic expressiveness of the music.”
In fact it wasn’t so much for vocal beauty that Bellini admired Pasta as for what he called her “encyclopedic character”—her ability to encompass a psychological gamut in her vocal acting. And this is exactly how he conceived the role of Norma, with her changing aspects as a mystical priestess, loyal confidante, betrayed lover, warrior, Medea-like avenger, and redemptress. She must adopt each of these personae with equal credibility. The conception of Norma’s character by Bellini and Romani is as formidable as the vocal demands for any singer who undertakes this landmark role.
The opera also takes care to represent the “aura” Norma projects, representing the effect she wields over other characters. Bellini’s musical portrayal of Pollione as he recounts his dream, for example, anticipates the turn from love to the desire for revenge and retribution that actually gets played out (though he fails to foresee Norma’s final act of forgiveness). Indeed, from the Roman proconsul’s point of view, much of the opera could be perceived as the unfolding of his dream. Adalgisa suggests a younger, more innocent phase of Norma herself, as vulnerable to the Roman as the conquered Druids have been to the occupying legions. The duets with Norma and Adalgisa attain the rapture of love music. Yet the love between Norma and Pollione—the catalyst of the drama—is only a memory within the framework of the opera, generating both melancholy and rage. Only for Pollione is this love reactivated, too late, in the tour de force Bellini and Romani created for the final scene.
Bellini’s score, with its passages of processional, ritualistic music and militaristic strains, meanwhile creates a vivid sense of the larger social forces behind the principal characters. At the opera’s climax, when Norma faces and then retreats from her darkest impulses, she turns back to her public role and summons the community, only to renounce her role as spiritual leader. Her final choice offers a cathartic resolution just as the opera’s dramatic tensions have reached the bursting point. And the image of the heroine calmly accepting her death on a sacrificial pyre would be revived in the grandest of all operatic finales when Wagner reached the end of his Ring.
Bellini’s gift for representing Norma’s full range of character in melody and mood lies at the heart of his unique vision of bel canto. “Here, where even the poetry raises itself to the tragic heights of the ancient Greeks, this feeling for form, which Bellini most decidedly ennobles, serves only to heighten the solemn and grandiose character of the whole. All the passions, transfigured in so singular a fashion by his song, derive from it a majestic firmness and strong foundation.” So wrote Wagner himself, who learned some of the secrets of his trade from his apprenticeship as an opera conductor. During his first season leading a company in Riga in the 1830s, Wagner conducted Norma a total of eight times, and his enchantment with its fusion of music and drama never wavered. It’s a judgment opera lovers in general have tended to agree with, from Bellini’s time to our own.
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
Before Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly, Minnie, and Turandot, Puccini created his first indelible heroine in the figure of the pleasure-loving and passionate Manon. She is the character around whom all the other principals revolve, setting them in motion (not unlike what we find with Don Giovanni). But she is also the most variable and contradictory. Manon might even be viewed as a series of almost distinct characters: the innocent ingénue we first meet, ready to be swept away by true love; the bored, pleasure-addled courtesan; and the social outcast, who ends, too late, as a repentant Magdalene (in the old-fashioned sense, that is, before the discovery of the powerful Mary Magdalene who appears in the Gnostic Gospels).
And through his Wagner-influenced technique, Puccini has Manon infiltrate the fabric of the score. The most pervasive of his recurring musical ideas is the descending pattern we hear when she first tells Des Grieux her name (“Manon Lescaut mi chiamo”). Puccini threads variants of the Manon theme throughout the score to reflect her changing situation. One especially affecting example is the terrifying sweep of chords that spell the theme at the beginning of the final act, when she reaches her most extreme moment of suffering. (Louisiana was, of course, at the time of Prévost’s novel a French possession.)
By establishing Manon in such memorable musical terms, Puccini compensates for the dramatic stasis of the opera’s final act with an emotionally compelling reminiscence of what the lovers have experienced together. Michele Girardi remarks that in his portrayal of Manon’s tragic end, the composer “achieved the first example of ‘reminiscence music,’ as he would in equally unforgettable ways for the deaths of Mimì, Butterfly, and Angelica.” And it is here with Manon Lescaut that Puccini sets in motion a whole career of writing operas that explore what happens to love at the breaking point.
– Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera
By Thomas May
As with any other discipline, opera composers don’t suddenly discover their voice in a vacuum –or a desert, to stick to the imagery of Manon Lescaut. Typically they have to spend formative years following models, taking baby steps, and making lots of mistakes that are compounded by the…well, compound nature of opera, with its fusion of so many elements. Even a prodigy like Mozart didn’t come into his own as an opera composer until he was 25 (with Idomeneo), with only a decade more of life in his account. And the situation turns trickier if the models themselves are open to question.
When Giacomo Puccini embarked on his career writing for the stage in the early 1880s, the centuries-old tradition of Italian opera had reached a major crossroads – and the debate over which direction it should follow grew more and more heated. Verdi had led the way toward innovation that was at the same time still rooted in the shared language and forms of that tradition, but he was now officially retired (though he would go on to produce a pair of even more innovative works with his two final operas based on Shakespeare). To the north, Wagner’s reforms – long known about only in theory but hotly controversial all the same – were beginning to spread. None of his operas had even been performed in Italy until 1871, when Lohengrin caused a sensation in Bologna, but “Wagnerism” loomed for young composers as a stark either/or choice: between the German composer’s “music of the future” (with its decidedly more prominent role for the orchestra) and the rich native Italian tradition of opera centered on melody and the unadulterated beauty of the human voice.
At least that’s the way many young composers saw it. But in Manon Lescaut, his third stage work, Puccini achieved a synthesis that set the pattern for his future success. It had been preceded by the usual tentative or even false starts. Puccini’s operatic debut, Le Villi (based on the story of vengeance by the brokenhearted that’s familiar from the ballet Giselle), lost when he entered it in a competition in 1883. The loss actually turned out to be a gain for the ambitious young artist, since his score impressed the powerful music publisher and legendary champion of Verdi, Giulio Ricordi (rival to the sponsor of the contest). Puccini, he raved, “has something more, and this something is perhaps the most precious of gifts… This precious quality … is that of having ideas in his head….” What Ricordi meant was that his new discovery possessed just the right balance of substance, imagination, and originality and that he was destined to receive the mantle from Verdi and to be the future “Italian glory.”
As the last in a long line of musicians stretching back five generations, Puccini had a unique vantage point from which to appreciate the glory of Italian music. But he was also absorbing inspirations from trips to the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth – Parsifal left a particularly deep impression – and in Manon Lescaut he marries the beauty of his native tradition with the symphonic devices he learned from Wagner to intensify the expressiveness of the orchestra. Puccini’s ability to affect the match derives from his remarkable instinct for the theater – an instinct both practical and aesthetically grounded. A corollary to this is his gift for dramatic characterization through music: with the charming, flawed, suffering Manon, Puccini lays the groundwork for his gallery of unforgettable heroines.
That Manon Lescaut was even written indicates the unwavering faith Ricordi had in his new talent. Despite a lukewarm premiere in 1889 for Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, which was based on a play by the French Romantic writer Alfred de Musset, Ricordi proceeded to commission another work and even accepted his potentially disastrous choice of topic: the famous novel published to great controversy in 1731 by the Abbé Prévost. L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut – actually the final volume of a much longer fictional cycle – is the only work by this colorful and prolific writer still generally read, and its popularity can be attributed largely to the musical works it inspired. The danger Puccini was courting is that not even a decade had passed since French composer Jules Massenet introduced his enormously successful operatic take, known simply as Manon. It remains Massenet’s most popular opera and, in its own way, blends voice-centered writing and Wagnerian strategy with French style. Although the version by Massenet hadn’t yet been staged in Italy, as a newcomer Puccini had chutzpah to insist on taking on this material.
Yet as Puccini expert Michele Girardi observes, by this point the composer had learned that he would have to be the one not only to select his operatic subjects but to determine “the dramatic structures of the libretto in advance, before setting it to music.” And Puccini found much that was attractive musically, theatrically, and psychologically in both Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux. “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover” was his flippant and often-quoted rationalization. (In fact there had already been an earlier French opera about Manon, while the German Hans Werner Henze left a 20th-century stamp on the story in his 1952 lyric drama Boulevard Solitude.) Still, his witticism tellingly hints at Puccini’s capacity to feel his way into his characters. Investing emotional intensity to bring them to life becomes a hallmark for Puccini from Manon onward, in particular with regard to his heroines. It’s interesting to contrast Prévost’s original narrative, which recounts events from the first-person perspective of Des Grieux. (The novel is a favorite of literary scholars investigating the unreliable narrator.) A striking feature of Puccini’s opera is how he represents the mutability of his heroine’s personality and how the larger musical atmosphere shifts so dramatically, from the color and sparkle of the first two acts to the gathering darkness of the final two.
At first Puccini even contemplated the Wagnerian move of crafting his own libretto. The creation of Manon Lescaut was unusually protracted because of interventions with his collaborators: no fewer than five librettists tried their hand at giving Puccini what he wanted, one bowing out in frustration to the next, until he was left with Luigi Illica (librettist of three later blockbusters by the composer). The official published score ended up crediting no librettists at all, but traditionally Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica are listed since they produced the final version of the libretto that Puccini set to music. So it’s not surprising that the final libretto is something of a dramatic patchwork. In part to distinguish the work from Massenet, it was decided to leave out a depiction of the lovers’ idyllic period before Manon grows bored and decamps to her sugar daddy (sometimes known as “the missing act”). The challenge for any production remains to connect the dots convincingly as the opera moves from cynical frivolity to suicidal despair, with only Puccini’s symphonic interludes to bridge the transitions.
Still, Manon Lescaut was an enormous triumph, commercially and critically, and secured Puccini’s position as the sought-after successor to Verdi. Not by coincidence, Ricordi arranged its premiere – February 1, 1893 – to take place just a week before the unveiling of Verdi’s farewell, Falstaff. “Let us return to the past and it will be a step forward,” went the elder master’s famous advice to the next generation. For all his use of recurring leitmotifs and Tristan-inspired harmonies, in Manon Lescaut Puccini had revealed a path into the future that integrated the treasured values of Italian opera.
– Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera
I would like to introduce myself to you–WNO’s loyal subscribers, members, volunteers, and more–as the new Artistic Director of Washington National Opera. Although I took up the position officially on January 1st, I have been working behind the scenes for over 18 months as the Artistic Advisor. It has been a pleasure getting to know all of you over the years I have spent here as a director, and I look forward to growing our relationships in my tenure as Artistic Director. You’ll be hearing from me soon about our exciting lineup for the 2013-2014 season and future plans, but first I wanted to reach out to you about the rich spring season ahead of us.
On March 2, Patricia Racette returns to the Opera House in a WNO revival of Puccini's classic Manon Lescaut. If you love La bohème you will find this to be a richer, darker, and more sensual work, transporting you to the world of France in the 18th century. Manon chooses to give up a life of being a kept woman for a passionate love affair with a student from the countryside, but her reckless desires drive her to sacrifice everything. We are excited to bring back the American star Ms. Racette as the heroine to lead the cast under the sure baton of our Music Director, Philippe Auguin.
Another strong female protagonist appears in Bellini's monumental opera about a Druid princess wronged by her lover. Norma invokes the passions of Greek dramas like Medea and Electra with sublime bel canto melodies. I am thrilled to present the work of visionary director Anne Bogart in a new production of this dramatic and vocal masterpiece. I know she will bring a deep interpretation of these characters coupled with a visually evocative setting of this ritualistic world. American sensation Angela Meade assails the title role for the first time ever in a fully staged production. Sopranos consider the role of Norma to be a Mount Everest for a career, and as Angela demonstrated in a recent recital here at the Kennedy Center, she is up to scaling the heights of this challenge. She shares the stage with one of our own truly legendary dramatic mezzo-sopranos, Dolora Zajick, who plays her nemesis Adalgisia. The bel canto music will be deftly in the hands of conductor Daniele Rustioni who we present in his WNO debut, having already stormed many of the major European theaters. This promises to be a sublime theatrical event unique to WNO.
To finish the season we will have our first foray into presenting a classic American musical with Show Boat. Set against a rich tableau of an evolving American landscape, the plot comes from Edna Ferber's powerful American novel (1926) which follows protagonist Magnolia Hawks from her childhood on a Mississippi show boat to a gritty life as an abandoned mother in Chicago and finally on to her life as a Broadway star. Nowadays only an opera company can muster the forces to see and hear it as Hammerstein and Kern envisaged their masterpiece. Our cast is a mix of opera, dance, and music theater performers. It calls for two full choruses and requires a large and lush orchestra which will be led by American specialist John Demain in the original orchestrations. I have created this production for WNO in collaboration with other US opera companies using some of America's best designers to evoke the tapestry of locations.
As you will see in the coming months, more and more I will be expanding our programming beyond the standard five productions in the Opera House. This June, as part of the American Opera Initiative, we present Approaching Ali, from composer DJ Sparr and librettists Mark Campbell and Davis Miller. This world premiere opera, based on the autobiographical novel The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller, will be presented in the intimate Terrace Theater. When he was a boy in the early 1960s, Miller was galvanized by Muhammad Ali on television and inspired to overcome some traumatic childhood events. More than twenty years later, as a writer on the brink of middle age, Davis seeks to rekindle that spirit by visiting the Champ in person at his mother’s home in Louisville. The production will feature many of our superb singers from the Domingo-Cafrtiz Young Artist Program, in addition to guest artists. This is a chance to experience a world premiere in an intimate setting, before anyone else sees it. Please stay tuned for more new programming and innovations coming your way next year alongside your beloved repertoire and favorite singers.
These are just a few highlights of WNO events this spring–Diana Damrau makes her WNO debut with an evening of music accompanied by harpist Xavier de Maistre on April 8, Opera in the Outfield will bring us back to Nationals Park on May 18 for Show Boat, and by the end of the season we’ll also have a wonderful free preview concert for the 2013-2014 season as well as a dedicated concert for our young artists.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and getting to know all of you better in the coming months.
See you at the opera!
Acclaimed American opera director and arts administrator
to begin new role on January 1, 2013
(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—Washington National Opera (WNO) today named Francesca Zambello as its Artistic Director, effective January 1, 2013. She has served as the company’s Artistic Advisor since June 2011.
As Artistic Director, Ms. Zambello will have responsibility for the company’s artistic vision and direction, including repertoire and casting. She will work in close collaboration with Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, WNO Executive Director Michael L. Mael, and WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin to further the company’s long history of artistic excellence. She will also oversee the artistic growth of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and will guide the future of the American Opera Initiative, WNO’s new American opera commissioning program. She will continue to direct one production each season.
“Cesca is both a brilliant director and a highly effective administrator,” said WNO Board Chairman Jacqueline B. Mars. “Her stature in the international opera community enhances the company and I have great confidence that she will take WNO in a positive direction.”
“It will be an enormous pleasure and honor to expand my role with WNO as its Artistic Director, maintaining the high standards set by my predecessors and leading WNO into the future,” said Ms. Zambello. “I will respect what appeals to our long-time patrons and supporters while at the same time work hard to attract new audiences to opera. I look forward to raising the profile of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, continuing the great work already underway with the American Opera Initiative, and highlighting special and unique repertoire and artists that only the intimacy of the Kennedy Center affords us. This is a challenge I embrace unequivocally, and I look forward to sharing more of my plans in the coming months.”
“Francesca Zambello will bring much passion and vision to WNO in her expanded role as Artistic Director,” stated Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. “Her deep commitment to WNO’s mission, its legacy of rich artistic programming, and its outreach and education initiatives will help bring WNO to a new level of artistic achievement.”
Francesca Zambello has established herself as one of the boldest names in opera. She has enjoyed a storied career as both an opera director and an arts administrator and has an extensive history of success with WNO. She has directed numerous productions for WNO and will direct her new production of Show Boat in May 2013. As previously announced, she will bring her much-admired Ring cycle back to Washington in the spring of 2016. She also serves as the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, where she recently directed an acclaimed production of Aida.