Monday, May 28, 2007

A New Voice

Mariusz Kwiecien was apparently not up to the demands (primarily of unpleasant weather) of singing at the San Francisco Opera production of "Opera in Dolores Park" yesterday afternoon. This was a bit disappointing. Much of the afternoon was devoted to excerpts from Don Giovanni. All the other members of the cast (except for Kristinn Sigmundsson, who will be singing the Commendatore) were there. The good news is that the role of Don Giovanni was filled by a singer I had not previously hear, Wayne Tigges; and he was definitely worth hearing!

During the intermission I commented to a friend, "You know not to trust him from the moment he opens his mouth." She liked that remark enough that I figured I ought to run with it. The problem is that there are several directions to take it!

Probably the most interesting is the challenge of delivering dramatic material without the benefit of staging, which I just addressed in regard to The Seven Deadly Sins. We now seem to be in an age where singers know enough about dramatic technique to "deliver the message" even when the staging is minimal, or even absent. Willard White recently demonstrated this when the San Francisco Symphony performed Berlioz' Damnation of Faust under Charles Dutoit. White had such a firm handle on the character of Mephistopheles that he really did not need staging (which Berlioz had not felt was necessary in the first place). Tigges had the same command of Don Giovanni's character. It was all the more interesting because, by the time the opera gets around to the "Là ci darem" duet (which is what he was performing with Claudia Mahnke), we know what sort of character Giovanni is, thanks not only to the "actions in the present" that we observe from his first appearance on the stage but also to the account of his past that Leporello gives us. Add to that the fact that most of us sitting on the grass out there holding up bravely against that notorious San Francisco version of summer were familiar enough with the opera that we knew about Giovanni's character without seeing all that prior material. The point, however, is that Tigges has established himself in that school of practice that conveys character with a minimum of dramatic resources, basically by letting the performance of the music itself do all the work. This left me less curious as to how he would perform with the guidance of stage direction and more curious as to how he would deal with the dramatic elements of art song. Hopefully my curiosity will be satisfied sooner rather than later.

The fact that so many of us know "all about" Don Giovanni is probably more blessing than curse when it comes to actually staging this opera. We are probably far more disposed to accept it as the "dramma giocoso" it was billed as being than its original audience of 1787 was. I am not sure to what extent Mozart and da Ponte were up on their Aristotle; but, as far as the latter's "Poetics" is concerned, the fact that Giovanni is a noble "Don" makes the drama a tragedy, rather than a comedy. Shakespeare had already set the bar when it came to using low humor to emphasize a tragic situation; and, while da Ponte was no Shakespeare, he was probably well aware of the technique. The result is that, in the years following its premiere, more has probably been written about Giovanni than about any other character in a Mozart opera.

It will thus be interesting to see what Leah Hausman has made of all this in a production that has already been performed at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Musically, this version appears to be on solid ground. The afternoon in Dolores Park concluded with Donald Runnicles conducting the entire cast (with Tigges substituting for Kwiecien) and orchestra in the finale to the first act; and, for all the disadvantages that come with outdoor performance, the growing confusion and urgency were all there. The promise of a hell-raising production in there; by next week we shall know if it gets delivered.

No comments: