For newcomers and cognoscenti alike, a regional opera company offers a down-the-line production of a classic.
In November, I reviewed in these pages the Kentucky Opera’s production of Glory Denied, a modern, still relatively unknown opera about America’s longest-held prisoner of war; by way of doing so, I also reflected a bit on my first cultural outing since moving (for non-opera-related reasons) from New York City to Louisville. Over Presidents’ Day weekend, I was back, for something at the other end of the operatic spectrum: a traditional performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Clever servants and dimwitted aristocrats flitted about in breeches and petticoats, just as God and Da Ponte had originally intended — albeit with one sly wink to modernity, in the form of a pair of powder-blue Converse All-Stars on the feet of the page Cherubino. The set, while minimalist, was suggestive of a rococo palace. Susanna (Tess Altiveros) and Countess Almaviva (Amber Monroe) stole the show musically in the second act, while Figaro, sung by Andre Courville, was the straw that stirred the drink. Meanwhile, though the leads have the best parts in the music, the action was carried by Brian Vu, an energetic Count Almaviva who seemed determined to bury his guilty conscience through zealous assertions of his authority (rightful or otherwise) as count over servant and wife alike, and by Zachary Owen, magnificently buffoonish as the comic villain Dr. Bartolo.
Just as noteworthy, from my point of view, was the audience. Some, like myself, were transplants from the coasts, or native Kentuckians returning from a long sojourn in cities where seeing five or six or even a dozen performances in a year is not particularly difficult. Then there was the portly, bearded gentlemen behind us, with the grey shirt tucked into buckled jeans and the thick Kentucky accent. Like far more people than stereotype credits, he seemed to have an in-depth, largely self-taught knowledge of opera, particularly Mozart and Wagner. At the same time, clearly what had held him back was geography — he’d seen far fewer operas live than he’d listened to or read about, and one wondered, as he waxed about what it would be like to see the Salzburg Festival or the Vienna Philharmonic, how things might be different had he lived in Austria (which contains both in a state about four-fifths the size of Kentucky). One wonders also about the sort of coastal elite who assumes unthinkingly that such people spring from the soil of Bavaria but not of the Bluegrass State.
His polar opposite, meanwhile, was the pair of bluestockings to his left. Superficially more sophisticated, they were novices to the art form, having clearly come as they would to any other matinee of a Broadway show that was in town. Their patter, complete with references to “Amodeos” (sic), was charming; their growing enchantment with the opera, even more so.
All around me, I could see variants on these themes: the veteran, perhaps accustomed to grander companies or more variety, but nevertheless thirsting for the unique joys that a live performance offers, even in the age of endless recordings on Spotify or performance-streaming platforms such as Medici. The aficionado, whose familiarity comes mostly through such recordings, rejoicing to be back among his own kind. And the novice — all the groups that opera companies and, in the case of the third, particularly regional opera companies, live to serve. Of course, as these examples also demonstrate, it’s impossible to judge who is who by appearance. Indeed, the cross-section of humanity was impressive in general, reflecting the variety I have encountered in Louisville as a whole. There were the young and old; the nattily attired (the gay couple to my right could have attracted the attention of Bill Cunningham, the late New York Times style photographer, at the Met) and those in T-shirts (the guy in the man-bun in front of me might have walked out of the tech room); and, though no one was overt about it, the progressives, dwelling in a blue bastion in a red state, and Mitch McConnell’s neighbors and supporters. (It is a small local irony that the colors used to signify this split in the day-to-day world are reversed: the blue of the University of Kentucky for those outside the state’s biggest city, and the red of the University of Louisville, for those within it, stand in for the cultural divide.)
This production, shown twice over the holiday weekend, concluded the three-opera season of the Kentucky Opera. Taken as a whole, the season (while regrettably short) of the Louisville-based operation encapsulated the responsibilities of a regional opera company. It had opened with a modern but relatively down-the-line Carmen. Then, something new — Glory Denied, which, as mentioned, is not only modern but still relatively unknown. In staging it, the company at once served two communities, one internal and one external. Internally, such a production is most likely to appeal to more-experienced opera-goers, who more often are the types hankering for something new. Externally, as I wrote in my review of it, staging something like Glory Denied at a regional level gives the opera community a chance to test something out at a lower level of risk than, e.g., a major coastal company would face.
And now, to close, an impeccably traditional production of what, by common consensus, is one of the top five operas ever written. This serves those segments of the community who have seen fewer operas. Unless you live in one of the few cities with a major opera company, it can take years, even if you’re a relatively committed fan, to see the 40 to 60 operas that make up the “repertory” — the must-sees that form the backbone of classical opera. Meanwhile, for newcomers, Figaro is a phenomenal first opera. And as for the cognoscenti, no one will — or at least, ever should — turn up their noses at a faithful production of The Marriage of Figaro.
For historical reasons, the English-speaking world tends to think of opera as very pretty music set to plots so silly nobody could take them seriously. But properly understood, Figaro, like all the collaborations of Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, belongs alongside the plays of Shakespeare as one of the great works of Western civilization. The insights into the passions, jealousies, foibles, and drives of men and women are no less penetrating, the comedy no less incisive, than those of Shakespeare’s comedies (and the twists and turns no more or less absurd, each being derived from common ancestors in classical and Italian street theater).
The world is a better place when such things are made accessible in as many places as possible. (Ditto for the countless regional theater companies performing Shakespeare, which probably do as much for education as the schools do.) It’s rare that every such production gets reviewed in a national publication; it’s of national importance that, as a whole, many are put on.
(C) 2020 National Review