Tuesday, September 18, 2012

 
-------------------From Timeline of Kings; Queens from Charlemagne to Elizabeth II by Gordon Kerr -----------------------
1014  In the battle of Kleidion, Byzantine Emperor Basil II "the Bulgar-slayer" defeats the Bulgarian army and massacres 15,000 prisoners.  All Bulgarian survivors are blinded, apart from one in every hundred to lead the others home.  Bulgarian Tsar Samuel collapses and dies of a heart attack at the sight of his blinded soldiers.

1040  King Duncan I is killed in battle by his cousin and rival, Macbeth, who succeeds him as king.
1057  King Macbeth is killed in battle against Malcolm III.
And there you have the genesis of Shakespeare's plot
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Since midsummer, I worked on The Diva Monologs, an evening of three one-act monodramas, each featuring one soprano in its only singing role, that was presented this past weekend by Intermezzo, the New England Chamber Opera for which I design.  Working through the material, I suggested this running order:
1) At the Statue of Venus by Jake Heggie, libretto by Terrence McNally, that was premiered in 2005. It's a lovely 22 minute work in which a young woman waits for a blind date at a statue in a museum, agonizing about the wardrobe she's chosen, reacting to various men who enter the gallery and might be her date, finally remembering the great love of her father, then deciding to leave but finally managing to stick it out.  The opera ends as a male voice calls her name from from offstage and she turns to greet him.  
 I worked with two directors on this program.  One, a fine artist with whom I had worked before, was responsible for this opera.  The big challenge was the design of the statue.  We were offered one that was life sized but completely lacking in any poetry or mystique.  I sketched one, working from ideas in a Rodin sculpture, that the director liked a great deal.  It was produced by laminating slabs of 2" thick styrofoam insulation board with water-based contact cement into a block, which I then carved with a variety of saws, wood rasps and sand paper.  My idea was for a Venus springing up out of the water from which she was born, her head thrown back and concealed by her arms.

I painted her with a bronze colored semigloss latex paint and then sprayed metallic gold paint from a distance so that the mist of gold would settle gently into the wet latex to provide a warm highlight on the dark mass.

A seventeen foot long strip of red material, the plinth for the statue and a simple wooden bench completed the set, allowing the pure, clear voiced soprano Kristin Watson to dominate the stage as she should, yet always in relation to the enigmatic Goddess of Love.

 After as quick a scene change as we could manage, we performed Hugo Weisgall's The Stronger, premiered in 1952, adapted by Richard Henry Hart from the play of the same name by Swedish playwright August Strindberg.  Two women meet by chance in a chic New York restaurant on Christmas Eve.  They have had a difficult history in the past and the main character, Estelle (soprano Janna Baty, left) suffers a slow but relentless meltdown during the half hour course of the action.  Insecure in her marriage and suspicious that Lisa (actress Louise Hamill, right) has had an affair with her husband.  The silent Lisa's reactions are presented only in physical attitude and facial expressions and serve as a passive aggressive goad to drive Estelle into greater frenzy.

At last, the slightly drunk Estelle declares herself to be the stronger woman and wishes Lisa a condescending "Merry Christmas" as she sweeps out the door.  Janna Batty is a visceral performer with a large, exciting dramatic soprano and a fine theatrical intelligence.  Kirsten Cairns directed The Stronger and the final opera with attention to detail and great character work with her performers.

The first two operas were defined in sharp, clean lines and strong colors, predominantly black, white and red.  After the intermission, Miss Havisham's Wedding Night by Dominick Argento, premiered 1979, closed the evening in a dark, dry-rotted and decaying setting out of Dickens' novel, Great Expectations.  The 35 minute work featured a tremendous performance by soprano Barbara Kilduff who had starred a year and a half ago in the opera for which Fritz and I wrote the libretto.  The role is filled with hairpin turns in emotions as Miss H slips into and out of what we call sanity in an attempt to come to grips with being jilted at the altar many years previously.  Barbara negotiated these transitions, and the intricate vocal line, with a pure voice and total involvement.

The big job in this set was to build the tall clock, one of many clocks in the house that Miss Havisham had smashed or disabled in some way in order to stop time.  As the clock has to be damaged and attacked again during the action, it could not be a borrowed clock.  I had a lot of fun doing it, as well as making the unrealistically tall gauzy drape (out of cheese cloth, not the easiest material to sew on a machine) and to age everything on stage to a dusty, cobwebbed finish.

We had good, very appreciative audiences for the two performances. Reviewers from the Boston Phoenix and The Globe were present although their notices have not yet appeared.  This comment comes from the Boston Classical review on the web:

"The sets used for the performances were practical but effective (headless statue for Venus, cafe tables for The Stronger, old furniture and ready-made, smashed-looking grandfather clock for the Argento work). William Fregosi, the designer, used generous portions of red in the sets for the first two works. And the sepia tones in Miss Havisham encapsulated the character’s decaying world successfully.

Fregosi demonstrated that an opera company does not need a multi-million-dollar budget for sets in order to tell a compelling story."

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With thanks to Tony Adams (Perge Modo blog) I discovered this unique drinking vessel.  It was found in an excavation at Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia and birthplace of Alexander the Great.  It's so unashamedly, joyously obscene! 



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Given the massive coverage of Mitt Romney's contemptuous dismissal of virtually half the American population, this graphic is offered without further comment:


Comments:
Wow, Will, you have been busy. Glad to hear that the productions were well received. I confess, though, to a certain discomfort at the idea that the only voice was that of a soprano. I guess my ears have a greater tolerance for tenors than for sopranos.

Now, if the Met's budget runs into trouble, you'll be on their list to call! :-)

 
Do you think Mitten's latest faux pas will make any real difference in the polls/voters?
 
I love your statue of Venus! And the tone of the "Miss Havisham's Wedding Night" set is incredible. You have definitely been the busy man.
 
Congrats on the success of the evening. You were describing the Venus concept to me in AK. It is nice to see the visual.

I wish I could have the second piece. I am intrigue that, conceptually it is a dialog but practically one is singing all or most of his half of the conversation while the other is silent.

I think Miss Havisham looks terrific but, at the risk of offending Spo, she is awefully ecru.
 
A fascinating triple bill: I don't know any of the operas, but Heggie and Argento usually guarantee quality. Congratulations.

PS - I'm just trying to prove I'm not a robot for the fourth time. Google's ID scheme is turning a lot of would-be commenters off, I know from my own recent experience.
 
David, what I don't understand is why they feel they frequently have to make the letters so distorted as to be unreadable. It should make no difference using block capitals -- the robospam wouldn't be able to read and reproduce those either. I'm glad and grateful that you persevered.
 
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