Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Repertory Countertenor

Among the 2009 artists performing this summer under the auspices of the Merola Opera Program, the most interesting may be countertenor Ryan Belongie. When I attended the event at which each of the artists was subjected to a brief interview by way of an introduction to Merola supporters, Belongie had the advantage that the interviews were based on alphabetical ordering; but, unless I am mistaken, this is the first time a countertenor "made the cut" for admission to the Merola Program. Unfortunately, the interview shied away from the question that interested me the most: The Merola artists basically make up a repertory company, offering two full operas and two programs of excerpts. Just how much can such a group get out of having a countertenor in the company?

Last night's program of staged scenes at Herbst Theatre (which will be repeated tomorrow in a free outdoor presentation at Yerba Buena Gardens) provided an interesting answer. The only countertenor opportunity was provided by the first scene of the final act of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. This scene is the core of the tragedy, where Orfeo leads Euridice back to the land of the living while she protests that he is ignoring her. When he finally gives in and looks back, the bargain he struck to win her is abrogated; and she is reclaimed by Hades. This was Belongie's one effort to strut his stuff, both vocally and dramatically; and he scored high on both counts. As I had written when the San Francisco Opera performed Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck had a keen sense of capturing dramatic tension in his music, even during the recitativo sections. This elevates Euridice above the mundane level of a selfish nag (duly elevated in the performance of Susannah Biller) and justifies Orfeo's predicament in making a deal that he cannot disclose. The catastrophic moment is not forced by the music (and Director Roy Rallo's staging recognized this); but it was one of the most effective presentations I have seen in the (regrettably) few productions I have witnessed.

Given the nature of Orfeo's bargain, it is ironic that Belongie's other significant performance last night was as a mute (which is certainly one way to compensate for a lack of other music for him to sing). This was his performance as Toby in the excerpt from the second act of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium that climaxed with the catastrophic moment of that opera. In this case Belongie had to rely entirely on his dramatic chops, and they definitely served him well. In most professional productions such non-singing roles tend to be given to dancers, but the Merola team had to work with what they had. Belongie was definitely instrumental in making the performance of this scene work as well as it did.

His final appearance could only be justified by tweaking the original stage directions. This was in an excerpt from the second act of Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer. According to the libretto, this act takes place in a large room in Daland's house, large enough to accommodate a hearth around which a chorus of women sit and spin, cultivating the household talents through which they hope to win husbands. Working with limited resources that could be adapted to all of the excerpts on the evening's program, Rallo converted this to a late nineteenth-century drawing room occupied by a chorus of detached and decadent observers. Since Wagner scored this chorus for sopranos and altos, Belongie could fit in as the only male in the bunch, which actually enhanced both the sense of decadence and Senta's alienation from the "real world" that motivated her obsession with the legend of the Dutchman. From a vocal point of view, Belongie's voice blended excellently with the other female voices; so again he scored both musical and dramatic points (even if, in this case, his dramatic contribution was very much secondary).

The answer to the question, then, is that there can be plenty for a countertenor to do in a repertory opera company provided that a little imagination is show in both choice and staging of the repertoire!


Anonymous said...

but, unless I am mistaken, this is the first time a countertenor "made the cut" for admission to the Merola Program.

You are mistaken. Vince Yi in 2007, or Gerald Thompson in 2006 come to mind from very recent memory. Thompson even became an Adler fellow, doing the role of Prince Orlofsky on the big stage, proving there's space even there for a counter tenor.

In most professional productions such non-singing roles tend to be given to dancers. This seems mistaken as well. It was for instance baritone Ricardo Herrero who was "singing" the role of Ambrogio in the last barber of seville at the SF opera. Dancers would be strange in silent roles, since singers are at least actors, and they are not.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I remember Thompson as an Adler Fellow and forgot that he came up through the Merola ranks!

Regarding the other comment, it may be that I have had the good fortune to see opera in cities (such as New York and London) with some really good ballet and modern dancers with excellent acting skills. Unless I am mistaken, London has the advantage that the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera are ultimately under a common management (by which I do not mean the authority that dispenses Royal financing). For all that Belongie seemed to have no problems with mime technique, which, I assume, was also the case with Herrero.