Spoleto Diary II: A Tale of Two Operas

First allow me to whine that I could only stay for the first weekend of the Spoleto Festival. There’s so much stuff I want to see!

Stuff like: Le Sacre du Printemps performed by Compagnie Heddy Maalem, with dancers from Mali, Senegal, Benin, Mozambique and choreography that’s draws on modern dance, ballet, and African dance. (Sound effects of baby bawling.)

Stuff like: The U.S. premiere of The Great War by Hotel Modern, a troupe of puppeteers from the Netherlands. Using animation, film, visual arts, and models of miniature battlefields projected onto a giant screen, the puppeteers recreate a vision of the trenches in World War I.

But I was present only for opening weekend of Spoleto, and opening weekend is all about opera. So I saw two: on opening Thursday, Anthony Davis’s Amistad, a dark, brooding look at American history and American slavery; on opening Friday, Rossini’s La Cenerentola (che-nuh-REN-toe-la), known to those who speak American as “Cinderella.”

No pix with this post unfortunately–just some thoughts.

I’ll start by nothing that there was an unflattering review of Amistad in the Charleston papers on Sunday morning by visiting critic Tim Page from the Washington Post. His words set off a war of the blogs between folks who found the opera musically and morally challenging and those who found it … not so much.

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I found myself falling into the camp of … not so much.

I wanted to like Amistad. I really, really wanted to.

Anthony Davis, the composer, and Thulani Davis, the librettist, had started with a completely different premise from that of the Steven Spielberg movie that opened the same year as the initial run of the opera at the Chicago Lyric Opera. What if, their version asks, the Africans had a completely different notion of why they had ended up in their predicament aboard the slave ship? What if they believed they had offended their gods? What if those gods walked the earth or sang from the depths of the ocean — were, in fact, ghostly characters haunting the proceedings on the stage?

It sounded like a fabulous premise to me, and I was all set to love the drama. But not only did I not love it, I actually fell asleep in the second act, waking just in time for the finale, a glorious chorus in which the captives, now freed, celebrated their court victory with a passion and verve that, had it been on display all night, would have riveted my eyes to the stage.

So what went wrong? The libretto, after all, had been a work of gorgeous poetry … but apparently gorgeous writing doesn’t always translate into drama on the stage. And in dramaturgical terms, nothing much happens during Amistad. The first act is set on the ship, with the captives fearing they’ve been betrayed, the navigator secretly steering for North America rather than West Africa. After the ship runs aground on Long Island, there’s a palpable sense of menace as officials arrest the captives and the townspeople jeer. But Act II fails to deliver on the promise. It’s, in effect, a long courtroom sequence in which the major events are told in flashback… a potential snooze even when the characters aren’t singing their lines.

Of course, the music is–and should be–the focal point in opera. And Davis’s score did offer a challenging mixture of jazz and atonal elements … just nothing to fall in love with. There were moments that sounded bluesy–there were even moments that recalled for me African American marching bands. But there was no African music mingled into the idiom. And the absence was jarring, particularly so when the composer and librettist had made the African origins of the captives such a point of emphasis.

Even these things could have been forgiven had there been a strong central character to root for, but that, too, was lacking. One expected the opera to belong to Cinque, the leader of the mutineers. But while Gregg Baker was an imposing presence on the stage–at least six feet, five inches, of gorgeous hunk-a-hunk-a-burning-baritone–he didn’t seem to have been given a whole lot to do. The focus often settled on the Trickster God, sung by Michael Forest with bell-like vocal clarity, but he was an observer rather than a precipitator of the action and seemed to disappear for long stretches.

A few of the singers went at their roles with everything they had: Mary Elizabeth Williams as The Goddess of the Waters delivered a show-stopping aria in Act II; Michael Fruitiger as the abolitionist Tappan displayed both acting and singing chops. But most of the actor-singers seemed to be wandering the stage aimlessly while they waited to deliver their lines. The sum of it all ended up being much less, rather than greater than, all of its parts.

By contrast, there was no aimless stage wandering in La Cenerentola. There was ardent scenery chewing, airborne props, even a bit of wacky animation–but it all seemed quite purposeful, and the sole purpose was fun.

Now I am a fan neither of comic opera nor of Rossini, and the Cinderella story is about as fresh as a century-old baguette. So there were moments in the second act when my attention flagged, the action seemed to drag, and I felt my eyelids begin that inevitable downward droop (we’re talking a piece that clocks in at two hours, forty-five minutes, people!). But the Rossini confection had a quality that the Davis collaboration failed to achieve. It was almost compulsively watchable–and not just because of the spinning, rotating, gyrating sets, the gorgeous lighting and costumes, but because the talented cast of singers were also supremely gifted actors.

Cenerentola’s wicked stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe (sung by Jennifer Check and Laura Vlasak Nolen) were actually funny, and Cenerentola’s (Sandra Piques Eddy’s) scenes with them were among her best. The wicked stepfather, Don Magnifico, was played by Tim Nolen as a vain, strutting, slightly ridiculous peacock of a man. The true master of comic timing, however, was Bruno Taddia as Dandini, the servant masquerading as the prince who’s demoted back to servant once the prince falls for the lovely, virtuous Cenerentola. His face, gestures, body language were astonishingly expressive for a man who was also singing at light speed. The most powerful presence on the stage, however, might have belonged to the mysterious Alidoro (Paolo Pecchioli), a trickster figure with a commanding presence and a magnificent bass, who seemed to be pulling the strings of everyone on the stage.

Now I find Rossini’s music to be no more memorable than Anthony Davis’s–for quite the opposite reason. While Davis’s music seems intentionally to defy the expectations of an untrained ear, Rossini’s music is a bit too user-friendly, a bit too familiar. It fails to surprise (though it’s often capable of delight), and sometimes, as during the interminable “reconciliation” sequence at the end, it turns so treacle-sweet as to be a misery…
But where La Cenerentola simply leaves Amistad in the dust is in the zest, the all-out commitment of its cast. Those actor-singers were having so much fun on the stage that it was impossible not to be drawn in.

Now admittedly, I saw Amistad on a single night–even if it was opening night, it may have been an off night. But those singers are going to have to dig deep and discover a collective passion for the material if they want to wrest the tiara of festival favorite from La Cenerentola‘s head.

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