Thursday, June 26, 2003

Common threads run through tonight's 3 operas

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nicholas Muni
Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nicholas Muni is staging the company's new, triple-bill production - Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and William Bolcom's Medusa - opening tonight in Music Hall.

The production is an unprecedented feat for soprano Catherine Malfitano, who will star in all three operas. These are also company premieres; the staging of Medusa is a world premiere.

We spoke with Muni about his concept.

How will the three pieces fit together?

We have come up with a framework concept to embrace them. All three deal with journey. In the first two, it's very much about an automobile journey. Sins is really about America's love affair with the highway. In La Voix Humaine, we're at the site of a car crash, and it all sits within a giant, abstract car.

In Medusa, we still have the same set, but it's not so much about road. Basically, rock and water are the unifying elements.

Why a car crash for "La Voix Humaine"?

It normally it takes place in her bedroom, but we wanted to have a more dynamic framework. What appealed to us was the fragility of this woman on the road alone at night, and the car's totaled. ...

She's talking to (her lover) on the cell phone, and there are all sorts of mishaps. There's this very fragile connection that we all have over the airwaves, which is part of what I think (librettist) Jean Cocteau and Poulenc were getting to.

It's set in film-noir; it's very much like a Hitchcock thriller in its basic look, and the music reflects that, as well.

I understand that lighting is very important in the other two.

Yes, in Seven Deadly Sins, the lighting scheme is in Technicolor. We wanted something very contemporary, very American. Every scene has a primary color, which is very saturated, and a secondary color.

In Medusa, there are a number of scenes, so the shifts of lighting define those scenes. It's really the performer that's carrying it, and the lighting is an emotional support.

"Medusa" was a late addition. Any pressure?

Yes. Sometimes opportunity knocks and you want to take it. We had talked about it (with Malfitano) a year ago, but Medusa hadn't been written yet. When she finally saw it in September, she called me and said, "There's no way I can imagine doing this with the other two (operas); it's so strenuous."

Then in March, when she premiered it, she said, "Well you know, if you're still open to the possibility, I believe that I could do it." We had to work very quickly.

It was written as a concert piece. How have you staged it?

My focus was, what is making this piece move dramatically as well as musically? In a way it's making it a new piece - although both William Bolcom and (librettist) Arnold Weinstein always thought of it as an opera.

The complication is that (Malfitano) switches characters; she's sometimes the narrator, sometimes Neptune. ... So it's embodying all that. We decided that it's Medusa speaking of her memory of these people.

If you go

What: Cincinnati Opera triple bill: Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins; Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine; William Bolcom's Medusa. Catherine Malfitano, soprano; Nicholas Muni, director; Brian Salesky, conductor; Lucinda Childs, choreographer

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday

Where: Music Hall

Tickets: $22-$120. 241-2742 or E-mail

How the stadium theaters stack up
Rosenthal's next: Something splashy
Going down the aisle? Unveil your finances
Get to it!

Clarke's short set long on virtuosity
Symphony shines in all but Mozart

Phair pops out
Common threads run through tonight's 3 operas
James Brown awarded BET lifetime achievement
Top 10s
The Early Word