Sunday, July 30, 2000

Opera recap

Season's experiment a resounding success

        Cincinnati Opera conducted an experiment this season.

        Could the 80-year-old company add a performance, open two different operas on two consecutive nights — and keep the quality level high?

        The answer, when the season ended last week, was a resounding yes. Not only was the quality of the singing exceptional, but for the second year, Cincinnati Opera broke records. It registered the highest income ($1.18 million), the most subscriptions (73 percent of the house was sold by subscription), and the most tickets sold for an opera production in Music Hall (10,129 for Aida).

        Says Marc Scorca of Washington D.C., president and CEO of Opera America, in town to see Aida and Pelleas et Melisande: “The quality, for me, derived from very balanced casting and excellent staging, from one traditional (opera), and one that was a startling dramatic interpretation.

        “In my position of advocating for opera in this country, I'm sometimes frustrated by the uncompelling quality of many performances. I breathe a sigh of relief when I know that first-time attendees can see the quality I saw in Cincinnati, because that quality will win opera lovers for life,” Mr. Scorca says.

        What this means is that the company is ripe for expansion. It is ready to market itself to a larger audience outside of the Tristate. It means in time, Cincinnati could again be an opera destination, as it was when it reigned as the country's most renowned summer opera festival from the 1920s to the '60s.

        In a company first, Cincinnati Opera presented the Cincinnati premiere of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande on July 13, and opened Aida on July 14. The fact that superstar diva Denyce Graves was singing her first Amneris may have influenced sales — all three performances of Aida were sold out.

        But the extra night was almost entirely single-ticket buyers. Further, no one could predict the exceptional calibre of the casts, and the smoothness of the behind-the-scenes operation both evenings.

        Sarah Schaufele, 28, a systems manager at Procter & Gamble, attended Aida. It was her second opera; she also saw last year's Turn of the Screw.

        “I was surprised at how well my husband and I liked it. Although (operas) are all dated, the themes are the same that you see in the movies,” she says. “So we enjoyed it. It was definitely a broadening experience, and worthwhile. I was also surprised that they are kind of racy, and more modern than you might think.”

        Aida was the season highlight for many opera-goers. Despite a few minor glitches, it was the best performance of that opera I have seen, anywhere. With such a huge cast, staging can be tricky, but the Triumphal Scene — with 235 bodies and horses onstage — was well done. The ballet, beautifully choreographed by Cincinnati Ballet's Victoria Morgan, added to the professional quality. (Too bad Ms. Morgan didn't work on Salome's clumsy “Dance of the Seven Veils.”)

        Mr. Scorca agrees. “In terms of dramatic subtlety, power and musical evenness, this was among the most satisfying productions I've ever seen of that work — and I've seen them regularly since 1975 around the world,” he says.

        One of the strengths of Cincinnati Opera is the casting ability of artistic director Nicholas Muni. Throughout the season, the voices were uniformly fine. Productions also benefited from good conductors, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played exquisitely in scores by Strauss (Salome) and Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande). The chorus, prepared by Henri Venanzi, was exceptional.

        But not every operagoer was thrilled with every production. Two operas challenged the audience: Salome and Pelleas et Melisande. Despite this, Salome came in with the second-highest attendance (6,484).

        Although its biblical story was familiar, it was the season's most controversial production. Updated to the turn of the century, Salome was part of a Victorian trilogy designed by Peter Werner with Mr. Muni, including last year's Turn of the Screw and Elektra in 2002.

        “It was a Victorian fantasy. It was different from the biblical story in crucial ways,” Mr. Muni says.

        One difference was Mr. Muni's chilling ending, when Herodias, rather than guards, killed her daughter, Salome. While some thought the director tampered with the intent of the composer and librettist, others found the opera compelling.

        Judy Lucas of Amberley Village liked the production. “I think directors have a choice to make changes, and I think that's good,” she says. “I thought the staging was very creative.”

        Debussy's unfamiliar Pelleas et Melisande had the lowest attendance (5,708). Nevertheless, it was 89 percent sold, exceeding expectations.

        Here, too, the director took liberties. Melisande's hair, for instance, did not reach down to her lover, Pelleas, in the famous towner scene. Although many enjoyed the orchestra and the fine cast, some missed the arias, the pageantry and the drama.

        Robert and Helen Watkins of Wyoming thought Pelleas et Melisande was long and tedious. “I felt I ought to be enjoying this,” Mrs. Watkins says. “At the same time, in 31/2 hours of Aida, there wasn't a tedious moment.”

        Mr. and Mrs. Robert Olson of Lebanon objected to the dark, abstract set. “We thought the set detracted from the music and the story,” Mr. Olson says. “If it had been portrayed more closely to the story by Maeterlinck, it would have been better received by the audience.”

        But Ute Ingmann of West Chester enjoyed the evening and was glad to see something new.

        “I felt like I was in a big city; I wasn't in Cincinnati,” she says. “I'm glad they are showing pieces like that, where you don't just have the typical operas like Aida.

        Rossini's La Cenerentola came in third, with 5,951 attendees. Again, the singers were excellent, and the traditionally-staged fairy tale was hardly controversial. But because the staging was less interesting than in the other operas, the evening moved slowly.

        Although overall quality has improved, it comes with a price. In five years, Cincinnati Opera has nearly doubled its operating budget, from $2.5 million to $4.8 million. In 2001, the company anticipates a $5.6 million budget.

        “On the fiscal side, we're keeping pace with our growth,” says Boris Auerbach, president of the board. “On the development side, we have set records.”

        Betting its strategy will work again, the company will add third performances to two operas in 2001: Madama Butterfly, a production by Francesca Zambello from Houston Grand Opera, and The Magic Flute, set in the fantasy world of whimsical illustrator Maurice Sendak.

        Opera lovers will also experience a double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung. Mr. Muni will direct a new production of Verdi's Nabucco, designed by Peter Werner (who designed Salome). All three are company premieres.

        “I do not ask our audience to "like' everything we do,” Mr. Muni says. “On the contrary, I treasure the immediate and visceral response even if it is negative. ... It's much like food, some of which requires several tastings to be truly appreciated.”


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