What’s the difference between opera and light opera? Or grand opera for that matter? According to my Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians an opera is just a sung play. A comic opera or light opera is an opera that includes both spoken dialogue and set pieces like arias, duets, trios, and choruses. An opera buffa is an opera that relies on secco recitative, literally dry recitation for its dialogue. That’s a kind of sung dialogue you might be familiar with from Mozart or Rossini. Their recitative is frequently accompanied only by harpsichord. Grand opera is sung throughout—no spoken dialogue. Think Verdi or Wagner. So far so good.
Lyric’s world premiere production of A Wedding is based on Robert Altman’s movie of the same name and was directed by Altman. The music was composed by William Bolcom with a libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. We’d heard McTeague at Lyric back in 1992, it was created by this same team, and so we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’d also heard Bolcom and Weinstein’s A View from the Bridge (based on the Arthur Miller play) and was completely enthralled with it so I’d thought that this production had possibilities.
The production opened onto a pretty fair simulacrum of the famous Tiffany stained-glass window at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest and so, we thought, fair enough. That’s where the story is set. Sets and costuming were attractive and appropriate. Performances were competent, perhaps even strong with a mostly American cast. But A Wedding was dull.
In the mid-20th century operatic genre-bending may have been a way of breathing new life into the old forms. Intermingling the conventions of opera buffa, grand opera, folk song, jazz, and other forms was ground-breaking fifty years ago. But now operatic genre-bending is a form with static and, in my opinion, rather stale conventions of its own. I think there was a good concept lurking within A Wedding somewhere: let’s create a 21st century version of the opera buffa of the late 18th-early 19th century like Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro. And A Wedding is at its strongest when it conforms most closely to the conventions of this form. The Second Act recitative and duet between Kathryn Harries as the socialist-socialite Aunt Bea and the always-enjoyable Timothy Nolen as the professional wedding guest William Williamson was fun and memorable. Anna Christy as Muffin’s Act II aria was also lovely. And the duet between Jerry Hadley as Luigi and Catherine Malfitano as Victoria was unquestionably the finest musical point of the opera. Of course. They’re two of the finest American opera performers.
But while I’m on the subject of Catherine Malfitano let me gripe. Ms. Malfitano is unquestionably one of the opera world’s gems. A truly great artist. Her performances as Butterfly twenty years ago were absolutely riveting. And she’s been at the very pinnacle of operatic success ever since. That’s her in the picture at the top of the post at the right in the blond wig standing next to Jerry Hadley who’s wearing a morning suit. Between the blond wig and the weight I didn’t recognize her until she opened her mouth. All well and good. We’re all getting older, now, aren’t we? But take a look at the picture on the right. That’s the portrait used in the programme. Why is it that even the greatest opera stars use their high school graduation photos as head shots? Who do they think they’re kidding? Jerry Hadley’s not one bit bolder. He’s using an ancient picture, too. C’mon, now. I’m not picking on Malfitano and Hadley. All of the performers except the very youngest are using photos that don’t actually resemble them much anymore.
But back to my subject. I don’t know why the creators of A Wedding didn’t stick more closely to the conventions that, as I say, worked pretty well in Act II in Act I as well. But they didn’t. It’s a modern no-melody sung-throughout mid-20th century operatic genre-bending work with a few popular songs and a little rock-and-roll thrown in (and Bolcom can’t write rock-and-roll and Weinstein can’t write lyrics for it). So the first act is deadly dull and perks up a bit in the second act but not enough to save the work.
Even by the low standards of Lyric the crowd scenes were unusually static. They were not unlike poorly-rehearsed tableaux. I know that Altman is considered one of our finest directors for both stage and screen. Couldn’t a little of that brilliance have been extended to something other than the principle players?
And that’s my take on A Wedding. It’ll never last.
The season so far (best to worst): Das Rheingold, The Cunning Little Vixen, Aida, Don Giovanni, A Wedding.