Sunday, June 18, 2000

Opera to take Muni's direction twice

        Everything about Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nicholas Muni is intense.

        In a large rehearsal hall tucked in a corner of Music Hall, the opera director confers intensely with the two singers playing the Nazarenes in Cincinnati opera's Salome, opening Thursday. Then he pauses to listen to their ideas, chin in palm, pencil perched over his right ear.

        While Salome's conductor Stefan Lano leads the singers through a scene with the Five Jews, Herodes and Herodias, Mr. Muni perches on the edge of his seat, hunched into a score, listening and watching. He jumps out of his chair to take the singers through their paces, all the while prodding and challenging them.

(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        “Nic always has another thought about really different aspects. He'll say, have you tried it this way? And it always works very logically,” Mr. Lano says.

        Directors such as Mr. Muni are shaping the face of opera around the world. This month's Opera News has devoted an entire issue to the influence directors wield over opera. In Cincinnati, even as Mr. Muni is stretching the audience with new repertoire, he is gradually changing the look and image of the Cincinnati Opera.

        This season, Mr. Muni's fourth as Cincinnati Opera's artistic director, he will direct two operas — Salome and Pelleas et Melisande, the latter a company premiere. Next year, operagoers can expect Verdi's Nabucco and the double bill of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung (Expectation) — all Cincinnati firsts — alongside the staples, Madama Butterfly and The Magic Flute.

        How they will look, feel and sound will be strongly influenced by Mr. Muni's taste, as well as the opera trends that he draws upon.

        “I'm more European in aesthetic,” says Mr. Muni, discussing the dark, abstract path of much of European opera. “I like things that are non-literal, things that are not decorative, that are spare. I like a very powerful use of color, a very careful use of color. I grew up in America, so I don't know where I got that.” ×subHed Total art form

        He approaches opera as a total art form, in which music and drama are completely intertwined. “To me, they're really one thing,” he says. “There has to be drama in the music, and there has to be music in the drama.”

        But when he begins to work, the director starts with the music. With Richard Strauss' Salome, for instance, a new production designed by Peter Werner, he first listened to the music — while walking, riding his bike and working out on a treadmill.

        “I get an emotion from listening to it while I'm doing something physical,” he says.

        Then he studied the text, and began to form a concept with the designer. This step he regards as laying the foundation, a lengthy process that involves intense discussions about the meaning of the opera, pushing and probing until a profile emerges.

        “With Peter, we hardly ever talk about what a work should look like at first. We talk a lot about what each character wants, why they're there and what they're feeling,” he says.

    June 22 and 24 — The season will open with a new production of Richard Strauss' Salome, Peter Werner, designer; Nicholas Muni, director; Stefan Lano, conductor; soprano Stephanie Friede (Salome); bass-baritone Ronnie Johansen (Jokanaan); tenor Jacque Trussel (Herodes); mezzo-soprano Susan Parry (Herodias); tenor Scott Piper (Narraboth); bass David Michael (First Guard); mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek (the Page); Gary Rideout, Thomas Baresel, Richard Furman, Daniel Weeks and Thomas Sherwood are the Five Jews; Richard Bernstein and Daniel Okulitch are the Nazarenes; Wayne Tigges, Second Guard.
    June 29 and July 1 — Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella), a production from Baltimore Opera (designed by Gary Eckhart). David Gately, director; Steven Crawford, conductor; mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella (Cinderella); tenor Bruce Fowler (Don Ramiro); bass Timothy Nolen (Don Magnifico); Stephen Powell (Dandini); bass-baritone Richard Bernstein (Alidoro); Frankie Hatcher and Blythe Walker (wicked stepsisters Tisbe and Clorinda).
    July 13 and 15 — Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (company premiere), designed by Dany Lyne; Nicholas Muni, director; Stephane Deneve, conductor; baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe (Pelleas); mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (Melisande); baritone David Pittman-Jennings (Golaud); mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee (Genevieve); Malcolm Smith (Arkel the King); Elizabeth Skillings (Yniold).
    July 14, 19 and 22 Aida, designed by Wolfram Skalicki; Mario Corradi, director; Edoardo Muller, conductor; soprano Hasmik Papian (Aida); mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (Amneris); tenor Gabriel Sade (Radames); baritone Donnie Ray Albert (Amonasro) bass Ronnie Johansen (Ramfis); Bass David Michael ( King of Egypt); Adrienne Danrich (the High Priestess); tenor Scott Piper (A Messenger).
    Tickets: $12-$85 (limited seats available opening night). Prelude dinners are available for $30; reserve up to 48 hours before the performances. 241-2742.
    Cincinnati Opera's 2001 season will mix old favorites with three company premieres: Nabucco, Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung.
    Next year, the company will continue its planned expansion. Two operas will receive three performances each (spanning two weekends), for a total of 10 performances.
    • June 21, 23, 29 — Puccini's Madama Butterfly.
    • June 28, 30 — Bela Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle; Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung (Expectation).
    • July 12, 14, 20 — Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)

    • July 19, 21 — Verdi's Nabucco.

        “Later on, when you make a decision about how this character looks, what the scene looks like, the time period in which it's set or the atmosphere, it has a foundation to rest on.”

        There are many ways a director can mount Salome and Pelleas et Melisande, the latter to be presented in July. The idea is “not to get stuck on the way it's done,” but to judge whether the director has created a believable world, Mr. Muni says.

Beauty and ugliness
        His concept of Salome, composed by Strauss after Oscar Wilde's play at the turn of the century, “is sort of an imaginary trip to Biblical times, but looking through a very thick Victorian lens,” he says.

        The Biblical and the Victorian will meld into a time-spanning mixture for the costumes: Salome has her veils, but other characters are dressed in Victorian garb.

        For the production, the singers have been learning to navigate a round, raked and tilted stage, with “teeth” on the edge representing gears of a wheel. The set, designed by Mr. Werner as part of a trilogy with last year's Turn of the Screw and Elektra in 2002, reflects the obsessions of Herod, Mr. Muni says.

        “He's very obsessed by the moon, and by the voice of John the Baptist,” Mr. Muni says. “Our take on it is, there's this huge room — basically a big observatory — and in it he's constructed a big telescope. He has a replica of the moon hanging in the room, gear works and a timetable so the moon can be tracked 365 days a year.”

        There is no cistern; John the Baptist will be imprisoned in a hole with the gear works.

        Salome is about beauty and ugliness, he believes. “John the Baptist is outwardly destroyed; he's very ugly, dirty, unshaven, and yet his spirit is very beautiful. Salome is the opposite: very beautiful on the outside but from a corrupt family.”

Symbolic opera
        Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande is more about capturing a style, and casting a spell. “It's much more ephemeral, amorphous, ambiguous,” Mr. Muni says. “You want to hit the nail on the head — it's just hard to see the nail.”

        Based on Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play, the opera has no arias, is set in no definite place or time (other than the Middle Ages), and is populated by strange people about whom little is known. It opens with Prince Golaud, who finds the mysterious, childlike Melisande weeping in the forest.

        The opera, Mr. Muni believes, is really about a turn-of-the-century literary argument between the symbolists — who believed one could only find emotion through symbols and dreams — and the realists.

        “Golaud represents realism, and Pelleas and Melisande are symbolism. What happens is that realism destroys symbolism — Golaud kills Pelleas,” he says.

        Both Salome and Pelleas et Melisande are great works that can be interpreted from many viewpoints.

        “The point is, to pick a viewpoint first of all,” says Mr. Muni, “and to pick one that's meaningful to you, as a director, that you can communicate to team members.”


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