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‘South Pacific’ revival on tour (2nd comment)BY: Peter Burwasser 11.30.2010
Has opera been replaced by the Broadway musical? If so, is that good or bad? The recent revival of South Pacific demonstrated the pros as well as the cons of this brave new musical world.
South Pacific. Music by Richard Rodgers; book by Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II; lyrics by Hammerstein; Bartlett Sher directed; Lawrence Goldberg, conductor. November 23-28, 2010 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. November 30-December 5, 2010 at Hershey Theatre, Hershey, Pa. www.hersheytheatre.com.
Not your father’s opera (or is it?)PETER BURWASSER
A lecturer at Penn’s Music department last year proposed that opera as an art form ceased to exist sometime around the middle of the 20th Century, when it was replaced by a new genre of musical theater dominated by the Broadway musical. Although I instinctively disagree with this extraordinarily provocative premise, I’ve been unable to fundamentally disprove it by example.
For example: A few seasons ago, the Opera Company of Philadelphia presented the premiere of David DiChiera’s Cyrano, which, rather than sounding new in any way, channeled lesser Puccini. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s critics have raised similar objections to his musicals. So far, the professor’s comments seemed right on the money.
So when I heard that the acclaimed Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was coming to Philadelphia, I thought that it would be interesting to apply the ears of an opera critic to a work that’s on almost everybody’s short list of greatest Broadway musicals.
A genuine baritone
In the case of this particular musical, another point for the professor is that the role of Emile was originally sung by an operatic baritone, Ezio Pinza. This casting would seem to contradict my belief that the way in which voices are projected differs fundamentally in opera and musicals. Still, the use of operatic voices in musicals remains very unusual.
And yet in the current production, Emile is again performed by an operatic singer, David Pittsinger. As was the case with Pinza, Pittsinger’s voice stood out from the rest of the cast for its depth and resonance, due to his use of chest tones to move the air.
Broadway musical performers are trained to manipulate their voices with the help of electronic amplification. But what the miked voice loses in richness, it gains in clarity. When the singing began in South Pacific, I automatically looked up to the top of the proscenium to read the super titles. Of course, they weren’t there, nor were they necessary.
It was quite refreshing to hear every word of the libretto in crystal-clear clarity. It makes an essential difference in the way the theater is experienced. Yet new operas are still being presented without amplification.
Difference in the orchestra pit
The trade-off is that in classic opera— as well as every new opera I can think of— the composer is much more interested in the totality of the sound, which is why the orchestra conductor is the real boss, directing the singers as well as the instrumentalists. The pit players in musicals don’t rise to the level of the singers. Richard Rogers was a wonderful American composer, and the parade of indelible melodies in South Pacific is dazzling, but no one stops to linger over the intricacies of the orchestra writing.
Even second-tier operas need a certain level of sophistication in orchestration. And at the top of the heap— which for me includes Mozart, Verdi and Wagner— we are in genius territory, with scores that inspire and surprise us even after years of familiarity.
Not withstanding my disappointment with Cyrano, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has been remarkably willing lately to challenge audiences with new work and spicy material from the 20th Century, especially in its collaborations with the Curtis Opera Theater. The Opera Company recently announced the commission of a new opera by Nico Muhly, a young composer best known for his electronic music.
It’s a tantalizing choice: Will such a musician use new tools to extend the vitality of a beloved art form? Or will he break enough rules to justify the premise that opera is no longer a relevant model for living composers? Stay tuned.♦
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