Opera vs. the Super Bowl: Notes from San Diego Opera’s ‘Great Scott’

For their final opera production for Spring 2016, San Diego Opera presented Great Scott by Jake Heggie. San Diego has co-produced this opera with Dallas Opera, who presented the world premiere in October 2015. These two companies firmly believe in Heggie’s work, and were also some of the first to present his Moby-Dick.

Kate Aldrich and Frederica von Stade in ‘Great Scott’

Great Scott is about an opera within an opera, and starts with the producer for the “American Opera Company, ”  Winnie Flato — sung magnificently by Frederica von Stade — who is placing the future of her company on the success of a newly found opera called Rosa Dolorosa, daughter of Pompeii. The fictional bel canto opera has never been performed, so this would be the premiere of an unknown gem.  It has been found by soprano Arden Scott, who happens to be a hometown girl who has returned to star as Rosa. Winnie’s husband is the owner of The Grizzlies, the local football team who are playing the Super Bowl and hosting in their home stadium. Of course, both  are scheduled to be on the same Sunday.

Rosa was sung in the Dallas premiere by Joyce DiDonato. Isabel Leonard was announced for San Diego, but about a month ago
Ms. Leonard canceled, and the role was learned quickly and performed perfectly by Kate Aldrich. Her rich mezzo-soprano carried well into the house and her mastery of the many coloratura passages was nailed with pinpoint accuracy. While not totally meant to be a comedy, Terrence McNally‘s libretto has many in-jokes spoofing opera. In act one, “The rehearsal,” Aldrich tosses off another fast passage from the opera, and then says something about ‘how hard this shit is to sing.” That line was the cue for the San Diego audience to realize that they were allowed to laugh, and the rest of the evening held many more similarly comical delights.

Nathan Gunn in ‘Great Scott’ — Photo by Karen Almond

Every great bel canto opera has to have two leading ladies. Countering Aldrich here is soprano Joyce El-Khoury, playing the up-and-coming generation of singers trying to overtake the established artists like Arden Scott.  To show that she is ready to be “America’s Soprano,” El-Khoury’s character, named Tatyana Bakst, sings the national anthem for the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know the piece–as she proceeds to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner — with Variations”.  The fusion of the anthem with bel canto ornamentation is a highlight of the show, with Bakst standing in front of a stage-sized American flag and looking and sounding every bit the diva.
As the guy Arden left behind, Nathan Gunn

made as much as he could from the smaller role of Sid. The chemistry between Aldrich and Gunn made for some nice lyrical moments in a show that goes between the high drama of Rosa Dolorosa and the lighter moments of interactions of the players in the opera being rehearsed, and then performed (in part) as the Second Act of the evening.

Kate Aldrich and Michael Mayes in ‘Great Scott’

Others in the cast included bass Phillip Skinner as the conductor Eric Gold, who also doubled as the ghost of Rosa Dolorosa‘s composer, and tenor Garrett Sorenson as the tenor who is in love with his own high notes. Baritone Michael Mayes played the hunky Wendell Swann, left to wonder if the audience liked him for his singing or for his physique –as Sid remarks: “the upper part of his toga kept falling off.”

It was a delight to hear countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. best known for his roles from the Baroque era.  As the imaginary opera’s stage manager, Costanzo showed his acting skills as a person who just wants to be noticed for himself, and not just for calling places for everyone.

The production was a box set with a few doors on which different projections showed the place. Another subtle smile was during the curtain calls after the “performance of the opera”, the scene showed the empty theater after the show–looking very much like the Winspeer in Dallas, where Great Scott premiered.

Conductor Joseph Mechavich kept the pace going and the thick orchestrations at a lower level of dynamics so that all singers could be clearly heard. And, in his last opera as the Chorus Master, Charles Prestinari‘s chorus gave their all with a sound to rival any opera chorus in this country. They also had a fun time acting in the rehearsal half of the evening. He will be sorely missed as he goes to a new position.

This was the last opera in SDO’s current season.  To read more about this season and see what’s coming up next year, visit their website at sdopera.org


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