“Great Scott”, the highly anticipated collaboration of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, is unlike anything else in the operatic repertory.
A tour de force created for Kansas mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, it is simultaneously a parody on the Rossini comic opera, an affectionate ribbing of the early 19th century Italian style of music-drama, a sentimental exposition of love stories past and future, and an erudite discussion of contemporary American opera coexisting with a culture in which professional sports teams are the focus of a wider society’s attention.
[Below: Joyce DiDonato is Arden Scott; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera. ]
“Great Scott” has so many levels that I cannot imagine being able to give a sense of it in this first review, even though I am not bound, as are many reviewers, by number of words or allocation of space.
I have chosen four adjectives to describe it – hilarious, endearing, sophisticated and profound – I will organize these first remarks around those adjectives, praise the cast, conducting and musical performance.
[Below: Conductor Eric Gold (Kevin Burdette, far left, back to viewer) rehearses the cast for Bazzetti’s “Rosa Dolorosa” consisting of baritone Wendell Swann (Michael Mayes, center left, in red shirt), Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato, center, in black outfit), Tatyana Bakst (Ailyn Pérez, center, in red and black patterned dress), Anthony Candolino (Rodell Rosel) and Winnie Flato (Federica von Stade, seated, far right).]
A Distinguished Musical Performance
One suspects that few opera singers these days, particularly Americans, would turn down an invitation to create a role in a new Jake Heggie opera. DiDonato, who herself performed brilliantly, was surrounded by a luminous cast.
Illinois baritone Nathan Gunn played Arden Scott’s high school sweetheart, Sid Taylor, now a successful architect. As ruggedly handsome as always and in great voice, Gunn was a strong presence cast as a sympathetic character.
[Below: Nathan Gunn as Sid Taylor; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Soprano Ailyn Pérez was cast as Tatyana Bakst, Arden Scott’s opportunistic rival, determined to make it in opera in the U. S. A.
The cheerfully over-the-top role allowed Pérez to exhibit her comic skills, as well as her lyric and coloratura virtuosity.
[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Tatyana Bakst; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Federica Von Stade is known to have been an early champion of Heggie’s career as a composer of songs and opera music. The part of Winnie Flato, the founder/artistic director of The American Opera, was written for her.
Winnie Flato is the wife of the owner of the Grizzlies, the local community’s professional football team. The Grizzlies’ winning season has put them into the Super Bowl and has created wealth that subsidizes the opera company.
Von Stade’s performance as Winnie was extraordinary. Even though she had previously announced retirement from opera performance, she was still technically solid and vocally strong.
[Below: Federica von Stade as Winnie Flato; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
I always look forward to any performance that includes either counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo or bass-baritone Kevin Burdette. This cast includes both.
Burdette is the conductor Eric Gold (a champion of early 19th century Italian opera) and Costanzo is stage director Roane Heckle (who likes his opera to have a contemporary sound).
Additionally, Burdette sings the part of the Ghost of the composer Vittorio Bazzetti.
[Below: Eric Gold (Kevin Burdette, left) and Roane Heckle (Anthony Roth Costanzo, right) discover they have more interest in common than just producing an opera; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
There are two other principal singers.
Rodell Rosel sings the role of Anthony Candolino, who embodies tenor stereotypes (while denying that they apply to him.)
Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann, a baritone. As one of the newer stereotypes to emerge in opera, Mayes’ Swann, as a lyric baritone, expects to sing shirtless, exposing his hunky build, whether or not there is any dramatic purpose in his removing his shirt. [For the early history of this phenomenon, see my conversations with lyric baritone Nathan Gunn at Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part 1 and Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part 2.]
[Below: the God Amor (Manuel Palazzo, suspended above) presents a communication to Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia de Pompeii (Joyce DiDonato, front, second from left with arm outstretched) as baritone Wendell Swann (Michael Mayes, left, shirtless), Agrippina (Ailyn Pérez, second from right) and Candolino (Rodell Rosel, right) look on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
In smaller roles, Manuel Palazzo is Amor and Mark Hancock is Sid Taylor’s son Tommy.
Patrick Summers, who has been associated with Heggie’s previous operatic world premieres, conducted the richly textured orchestral score, leading The Dallas Opera’s orchestra with passion.
[Remarkably, Summers is alternating performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Houston Grand Opera with the runs of performances of “Great Scott” in Dallas.]
Dallas Does Heggie
One needs to acknowledge the importance of The Dallas Opera, the institution that has taken the lead in promoting two of Jake Heggie’s masterpieces.
Late in the first decade of the millenium, the Dallas Opera transformed itself by commissioning Composer Jake Heggie and Librettist Gene Scheer to create an opera from Herman Melville’s most famous novel.
After Heggie’s “Moby Dick” world premiere in Dallas [See my review at World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010] the masterpiece has subsequently become the 21st century’s best bet so far to enter the inner core of the world’s operatic repertory,
Exactly five and a half years later to the day, The Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of yet another Heggie commission, “Great Scott”.
Heggie teamed again with librettist Terrence McNally, with whom he had collaborated previously for “Dead Man Walking”, another esteemed addition to the repertory of 21st century American operas.
“Great Scott” was staged by the eminent Broadway director Jack O’Brien, who, like McNally, has garnered sufficient Tonys and other prestigious awards to secure the highest rank in American theater royalty.
[Below: from left to right, “Great Scott’s” stage director Jack O’Brien, composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally; resized image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
A Hilarious “Great Scott”
“Great Scott” abounds in inside-the-profession and inside-opera-fandom jokes. It also contains broad, but affectionate, parodies of musical styles.
From early on in the stylishly written overture, with its football fight song that likely would have drawn a smile from John Phillip Sousa, we can get hints that we are in for a roast of Rossini. We hear the tell-tale accelerando (with an unmistakable homage to Rossini’s “Cenerentola” overture).
In the rehearsal taking place of the first performance of a long lost opera seria the artists launch Rossini-like comic ensembles with preposterous syllabic patter.
As every Rossini comic opera must, the first act ends with all the characters onstage grouped closely together singing nonsensical phrases [e.g., the six main principals sing variants of “is it no or is it yes or no or Oh ah ah ah” while the sopranos and tenors in the chorus sing “tick tock tick tock”, the altos and basses sing “six one thousand seven eight one thousand nine thousand thousand”.
Heggie and McNally have launched – two centuries after Rossini created his particular brand of sidesplitting comedy in “L’Italiana in Algeri”, “Cenerentola” and “Barbiere di Siviglia” – an imitation that we all can recognize as the sincerest form of flattery.
The pseudo-Rossini episodes are not the only wildly funny comic ensembles. The “Busy Singer’s Game” in which conductor Gold, director Heckle, impresario Flato and singers Swann, Candelino and Bakst try to find a time when all six can have lunch together, creates a new comic style all its own.
[Below: Making fun of the complicated schedules of opera artists’ future performances are from left to right, Winnie (Federica von Stade), Eric (Kevin Burdette), Anthony (Rodell Rosel), Roane (Anthony Roth Costanzo), Tatyana (Ailyn Pérez) and Wendell (Michael Mayes); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Another example of the merriment inherent in the work is an affectionate poke at the idea that the Star Spangled Banner is so fiendishly difficult to sing that Arden Scott (and virtually all her opera colleagues) passes up the opportunity to sing it at the Super Bowl.
This presents the upwardly mobile Tatyana the opportunity to sing it with her own Donizettian flourishes and coloratura embellishments, accompanied by four choristers in law enforcement uniforms.
[Below: Tatyana Bakst (Ailyn Pérez, front left, in spotlight), accompanied by four choristers dressed as law enforcement, sings The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
An Endearing “Great Scott”
One of the notable aspects of “Great Scott” is that its comedy is at no one’s expense. There are no Sir John Falstaffs or Sixtus Beckmessers humiliated in this work. One never loses the sense that with all the jabbing at the operatic conventions that this is a work about professionals whose life-work is creating the operatic experiences we cherish, and who have sometimes sacrificed personal happiness for the art form.
The relationship between Arden Scott and Sid Taylor is beautifully drawn throughout, and is utterly believable.
[Below: Sid Taylor (Nathan Gunn, left) and Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato, right) begin to rekindle an old romance; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
“Great Scott” causes one to care about the Grizzlies one-point loss in the Super Bowl, of the decision that Arden Scott must make about Sid Taylor’s belated proposal of marriage, about the profound advice that the Ghost of the Composer Bazzetti gives to those of us who cherish opera in the 21st century, of the fact that conductor Eric Gold notices that stage director Roane Heckle’s eyes are blue, and, above all that Rosa Dolorosa reconciles with a family who did not know that they were related to one another before she sacrifices her life to save the people of Pompeii by jumping into the volcano Vesuvius.
A Sophisticated “Great Scott”
The music that Heggie has written for the fictional lost opera that the company revives, “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii”, supposedly written in the mid-1830s (the time of Bellini’s “Norma” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”), is an extraordinary achievement.
Though Bazzetti’s fictional opera is amusingly “re-constructed”, the score that Heggie composed (ghost-wrote) as Bazzetti’s opera is skillfully done. I suspect that music students will study Heggie’s score for as long as music remains an academic discipline.
A Profound “Great Scott”
Kevin Burdette performs the role of The Ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti, who begins the most cogent discussion of the state of opera since Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio”.
Bazzetti’s ghost speaks not only to Arden Scott but to modern audiences about the need for the art form to be contemporary and evolving and for singers to create their own roles rather than basing their careers solely on the operas written for such early 19th century divas as Pasta, Grisi and Malibran.
Final Thoughts on the “Great Scott’s” First Evening
Personally, I wouldn’t personally recommend this as a first opera (although I suspect many persons who never have seen an opera before would be charmed by it). But for those with even a passing affection for the art form, this is “must-add” to the list of operas experienced. For the sophisticated operagoer this is an encyclopedia of insights about opera, even with its parodies of opera performance.
Brilliant performances by every member of the cast helped assure the success of The Dallas Opera world premiere. After the run here, it goes to the San Diego Opera next May.
The 21st century will not see this opera limited to performances in Dallas and San Diego. This is a major American work, that will challenge and enchant audiences. “Great Scott” is Great Opera!