Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s daughter, she of the famous blue gown and doyenne of Washington society in her day, reportedly kept a sofa pillow in her salon bearing the cross-stitched legend: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
In a moment we’ll plump onto an adjacent pillow and have a heart-to-heart about the Santa Fe Opera’s brand new double-bill of Mozart’s The Impresario, his satirical cream-puff about operatic rivalries, and Stravinsky’s tender fairy-fable, Le Rossignol. But first, a word or two about operatic double-bills and why they can be notoriously problematic. Not always, of course—witness the pairing of that sure-fire hyper-verismo duo, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Against that, though, consider the infamous 1935 Met pile-up of Puccini’s rib-tickler, Gianni Schicchi, with believe it or not, Strauss’ Salome.
The SFO has several double outings under its belt, commencing in 1957 with an unlikely pair: Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona and the premier of Marvin David Levy’s The Tower. Bold first-season programming, of course, but less than impressive. The most successful double-bill hereabouts was the 1973 staging of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges along with the company’s hitherto most recent production of Le Rossignol, a magical, imaginative fairytale combo that clicked thematically and stylistically.
Even the 1914 premier—unsuccessful—in Paris of Le Rossignol was prefaced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or (incidentally and irrelevantly my first opera age 7; I was hooked). Diaghilev staged both as opera-ballets with dancers onstage and singers in the pit.
Expectations ran high about this new, bright-idea Mozart/Stravinsky pairing, both composers with long-standing connections with the SFO, and both captivating works with the potential to provide another enchanted evening.
The concept sounded more than OK on paper: Mozart’s competitive sopranos would vie for the plum role of the Nightingale in the Stravinsky work, the impresario himself would assume the part of the emperor of China, and parallels aplenty would emerge between the personnel of both operas. Mozart’s piece is neither holy writ nor tamper-resistant. Its problem: only 20-some minutes of music. Too few notes, Mr. Mozart.
So, augmentation happened. The SFO commissioned Ranjit Bolt to dash out a new libretto for The Impresario, one linking it with Le Rossignol, and then fleshed out Mozart’s meager musical offering with a handful of brief pieces borrowed from the composer’s catalog. And—hey presto—a great gallumphing pastiche emerged, purporting to twin Mozart with Stravinsky. The thing runs for 65 long, long minutes, dwarfing the evening’s much more economical second half.
That’s not the fault of those musical insertions. There’s a tongue-twisting patter song for baritone; an aria from Don Giovanni in a most surprising context; “Bona nox!,” a (tsk) scatological canon à 4; and most significantly, the hair-raising coloratura showpiece, “No, che non sei capace.”
As staged though, it’s a frantic, Hellzapoppin’ farrago—all over-the-top sight gags, double entendres, mugging and mayhem—that makes one long for the finale. That aforementioned showpiece, well and truly sung by Brenda Rae, gets lost amid her jogging about with a blue boa, and the sparkling overture vanishes under nonstop onstage mimed japery.
Blame not the singers. Bruce Sledge is the capable tenor, here christened Vladimir Vladimirescu, and Rae plays his pungent wife, Vlada. Erin Morley sings the rival soprano with enormous aplomb, and Meredith Arwady makes a massive impression as a third competitor for top billing in l’affaire Stravinsky. Anthony Michaels-Moore enacts the Diaghilevian impresario, with rubber-faced Kevin Burdette as his business manager. Soon enough, the onstage whimsy turns into whamsy.
When the action shifts to China, Sledge is now Stravinsky’s Fisherman, Morley sings the Nightingale peerlessly, Rae is the Cook, Michaels-Moore the Emperor, and Arwady’s remarkable true contralto personifies Death. Again, no complaints about the singing. Kenneth Montgomery leads a crisp account of the Mozart and a skillful, richly detailed reading of the Russian opera, notable for its extended orchestral passages. It’s sung in Russian, by the way.
To return, then, to Longworth’s forthright pillow and to saying the not-so-nice. Take that production team. Please. Granted that Le Rossignol’s spare plot—Nightingale charms Emperor; Emperor, stupidly bewitched by Japanese mechanical bird, banishes Nightingale; Nightingale’s song rescues Emperor from Death—lacks much drama. It’s all about the music, Stravinsky’s opalescent score, and the accompanying exotic, should-be spectacular chinoiserie.
Director Michael Gieleta’s self-indulgent “concept” nearly ruins both. His Rossignol opens with the comic tableau that closed the Mozart, its goggle-eyed cast huddled center stage in the impresario’s office. Then, during Stravinsky’s timeless pianissimo orchestral introduction, the singers frantically change costume and rearrange the set (an ugly one by James Macnamara), drowning out the music and destroying the crystalline mood the opera proposes.
Worse yet, Gieleta’s showy coup de théâtre returns at opera’s end when the cast reassumes that pointless comic tableau, again ignoring the delicacy and stillness of Stravinsky’s conclusion. Well, I could go on, Mrs. Longworth, about frenetic choreography (Seán Curran) and Fabio Toblini’s costumes (fun for Mozart, not-so-much for Stravinsky). Your pillow invites candor. Though this SFO production disappoints in many ways, it still succeeds entirely in one vital element.
The voice of the Nightingale. Erin Morley in a could-be Paul Poiret gown. The real thing.