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Handel and Davies operas at CurtisBY: Steve Cohen 10.09.2011
Curtis paired two short operas that deal with unrequited love but otherwise have little in common, aside from their ingenious staging by Chas Rader-Shieber. Soprano Anna Davidson’s bravura turn as a jilted bride was well worth watching and hearing, notwithstanding the painful atonal score she was dealt.
Apollo e Dafne: Opera by George Frederic Handel (in Italian). Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, by Peter Maxwell Davies (in English). Staged by Chas Rader-Shieber; Vinay Parameswaran conducted. Curtis Opera production through October 9, 2011 at Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust St. (215) 893-5252 or www.curtis.edu/performances.
Hokey but effectiveSTEVE COHEN
Curtis came up with an unusual and provocative pairing of two short operas: Both dealt with unrequited love but otherwise had little in common aside from their ingenious staging by Chas Rader-Shieber. Each opera had a large banquet table at center stage, and each leading character was found lying upon that table. Hokey, yes, but effective.
Handel’s Apollo e Dafne was intended as a serious story when it was written (as a cantata) around 1710, but Rader-Shieber approached the tale light-heartedly: There he goes again, that Apollo, cocksure and full of himself, and now let’s watch him get his comeuppance. The director’s comedic intentions were made clear at the start, when Apollo entered dressed in classical garb and a pair of modern white sneakers.
Apollo’s passionate entreaties to Dafne were set to mellifluous music with elaborate Baroque embellishments. Dafne escaped from the horny Apollo by transforming herself into a tree, a device you may recall from one of Richard Strauss’s last compositions, Dafne.
The blonde and handsome baritone Sean Michael Plumb appeared almost god-like as Apollo, and he spun out his long musical lines with style and accuracy, investing his words with strong dramatic coloring.
Anna Davidson sang Dafne pleasantly and simply. But her arias in this piece gave little indication of what we would hear from her later in the evening.
After intermission came the 1974 opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, for a solo soprano and a small orchestra, mainly strings with prominent contributions from flute, piano and percussion. It chronicled the bitter memories of an Australian lady who was jilted at the altar by her naval officer fiancé.
She appears to us many years later, still in her white satin gown, amidst the leftovers of her wedding feast, with piles of old newspapers on the table and floor. Much like Edith Beale in Grey Gardens, Miss Donnithorne has locked herself in the past. “Here comes the bride,” she sings, “stark mad… ten years deep in the icing.”
She rants against the sailor and her wedding guests and all of society, using words like “piss” and “fucking.” The poetic imagery might impress some listeners, but it didn’t grab me.
Better as comedy?
This interpretation was grotesquely melodramatic, but I’ve seen another production of this opera that emphasized the lady’s sexual frustrations, and that approach worked better. Also, is it possible that Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot would be more interesting if, like the Handel, it were staged as a comedy? I wonder. It’s just a possibility.
Nor was I enthralled by Davies’s atonal music, full of shrieks and screams. And I’m the rare critic who likes atonal music. (See my defense of Henze’s Phaedra this past June.)
(Davies has written other pieces, orchestral and vocal, that use different sounds, some of them based on Renaissance music, which would please some listeners turned off by Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot.)
The baritone and soprano on alternate dates are Jonathan McCullough and Aliza Rozsnyai.♦
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