Vera Tilson • November 3, 2011
-Almost from the moment I entered the room to meet conductor John Mauceri, having heard that I was a musician, he sat me down at a desk to show me the particular score of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which he will be conducting for 12 performances starting on March 20 for Washington National Opera.
An enormous amount of research, clearly a labor of love, was evident in what he showed me. The history of “Porgy” signified a remarkable moment in American music. Just acknowledging that it was a real opera has taken a long time. It became popular initially by calling it musical theater and reducing it from three acts to two.
He said that most of his life has been committed to what we don’t have access to, and because music exists in the art of translation, you have to take it from the page to performing it. He knew that there was much in Gershwin that we didn’t know because much was unpublished. Gershwin wrote over 20 shows. He said that we know the songs but not the shows.
One of the hallmarks of a fine musician is a passion for detail and finding a composer’s original intent; changing markings and changing tempos can make a significant difference. Mr. Mauceri is clearly a scholar, as well as musician. The list of music that he has restored to original intent is breathtaking. He played a section of “Porgy” by a conductor who had not seen Gershwin’s original score and one with different markings. The effect was startling.
Cheryl Crawford, of the Theatre Guild, initiated the effort to turn “Porgy and Bess” into a musical theater piece. The three acts were turned into two and the piece became a success. The Theatre Guild finally donated all its material for archival purposes to Yale University where he found what he needed. As much as possible will be used in the coming performance.
I can’t wait to attend the show.
WNO’s Princely ‘Hamlet’
-The problem with creating an opera around an iconic character and play, particularly by Shakespeare, is that only the characters remain from the plot. This is confusing for the public and has caused myriad responses to the opera. Expectations are for a literal translation of plot to music which is, of course, not possible. The surprise upon attending the Washington National Opera’s adaptation of “Hamlet,” performing through June 4, was how attractive and well written the music was. The evening, in fact, was full of surprises.
For a while, “to be or not to be” could have been the slogan for the production by French composer Ambroise Thomas — it almost didn’t happen. The part of Hamlet was to be sung by Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez and Ophelia by German soprano Diana Damrau, both of whom had to cancel. We saw the second performance on May 22 wherein Michael Chioldi sang Hamlet and Elizabeth Futral, who had performed in the first performance, had to bow out at intermission and turn over the famous mad scene to Soprano Micaëla Oeste, in her second season with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
Michael Chioldi sang a fine Hamlet. Until Elizabeth Futral had to leave at intermission, her singing showed no sign of the difficulties that were bothering her. However, Miss Oeste was definitely a find. She immediately continued the character of Ophelia for at least the 20 minutes of the mad scene with beauty of tone and intense and graceful acting. The audience showed enthusiastic appreciation.
Elizabeth Bishop sang a regal Gertrude with a matching rich sound. Samuel Ramey, an impressive actor performing Claudius, no longer has the voice he once had. I remember the wonderful impression he made when I first heard him. That voice is gone.
Finally, the notion of Stage Director Thaddeus Strassberger to change time and place to a fascistic regime with contemporary costumes distorted the consistency of atmosphere that the production demanded.
My final thought was how good the orchestra sounded under the baton of Placido Domingo. Having observed his conducting for many years, I have watched him grow in his command of the orchestra through the years. Superb.
Visit the Kennedy Center for tickets and scheduling information.