Note Worthy

It's getting toward the end of May, which means that Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), the morel of U.S. musical mushrooms, will appear as if by magic in the environs of the Loretto-Hilton Center. OTSL is presenting its usual four operas -- three warhorses and a dark horse -- all performed in English. Off to battle are, in the order of their opening nights: Giuseppe Verdi's Othello (May 22, with nine more performances), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (May 27, with nine more performances), Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (June 6, with five more performances), and the world premiere of Paul Schoenfield's The Merchant and the Pauper (June 17, with four more performances). This year's opera for young people, Adolphus Hailstork's Joshua's Boots (June 11, with four more performances), is also a world premiere. The Center of Contemporary Arts hosts the production.

It's tempting to call Othello grand opera, although Verdi called it a drama lirico, the Italianization of a French term, drame lyrique, that in its time signified an opera following many of Richard Wagner's notions: continuous action, a much more symphonic orchestration and maybe a leitmotif or two. Psychology and the interior life took place over grandeur and show. Othello is Verdi's last tragic opera. Its libretto follows the Shakespeare original with reasonable fidelity. Indeed, with the possible exception of Verdi's last work, The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello is generally considered to be the very best of the many, many attempts to adapt Shakespeare plays to operas. One change concerns the opening scene. Instead of beginning in Venice and civilization as the play does, Verdi's opera opens on the dock of the Venetian army camp on Cyprus. This place of strife becomes even more disturbed because a storm is brewing, and the ship returning Othello to his camp is in trouble. The orchestra itself becomes the storm, and the audience is engaged with the literal and metaphorical tempestuousness of the opera immediately. The familiar plot then reels out, with the shuddering predictability of all tragedy made even more piteous and fearful by Verdi's music. Stephen Lord, OTSL's music director, conducts, and artistic director Colin Graham is directing.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that OTSL presented a traditional The Marriage of Figaro. This season's production, directed by Christopher Alden, is said (in one OTSL press release) to be "new and very contemporary"; Alden says that this Figaro will be "young, loose and playful." This sounds promising, for few comic operas have the potential for that most young, loose and playful dramatic form, farce -- unexpected people popping behind, in and under chairs; unexpected people appearing (or not) from appropriate (or inappropriate, depending) closets; unexpected people getting bussed or buffeted by even more unexpected people in the garden in the dark. Alden will undoubtedly have fun as well with the classicism that Mozart satirizes so amusingly, eloquently and whole-heartedly. Stefan Lano conducts.

Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which premiered in Paris in 1863, was an immediate popular success, although the critics didn't like it -- all of them, that is, but Berlioz. It lapsed into obscurity, partially because the original score disappeared and various fixers kept fixing it wrong. It's become much more popular over the last 30 years, perhaps because a full vocal score from 1863 was discovered in 1975. The libretto -- presented here in a spoken-dialogue version -- is a wonderful example of Victorian Orientalism, full of heathen worship, mysterious priests, major passion, bloodthirsty natives and an exotic setting, Ceylon. A group of fishermen and their leader, Zurga, are awaiting a priestess who will bless their pearl-fishing expedition. Enter Nadir (an odd name for the tenor, if you ask me), Zurga's oldest and best friend. They had once, on a trip, fallen in love with the same woman but chose to keep their friendship rather than split up over amorous jealousy. The awaited priestess, Leila, arrives; as fate would have it, she turns out to be the woman both had admired. Although the plot of The Pearl Fishers does go on like a RKO '30s melodrama (think Gunga Din or Beau Geste), the music is superior, especially the Act 1 duet between Nadir and Zurga. Steuart Bedford conducts and Travis Preston directs the production.

OTSL commissioned Paul Schoenfield to compose an opera, and he selected one of the tales of Rabbi Nachman, The Merchant and the Pauper, as its basis. Maggie Stearns, Opera Theatre's public-relations director, who has made several translations for OTSL, has composed the libretto. Rabbi Nachman, one of Hasidic Judaism's most distinguished teachers, taught his followers by means of his folk-like tales, so The Merchant and the Pauper, which can be enjoyed as a fairytale, also serves as a spiritual resource. Composer Schoenfield was born in Detroit in 1947. He had something of a career as a prodigy pianist and began composing in the mid-'80s, achieving critical and popular success almost immediately. Jazz, popular and folk music, especially klezmer, have all played a part in Schoenfield's accessible music. The Merchant and the Pauper is his first opera, but everything points to its being musical, interesting, polished and fun. Conducting is John DeMain, and directing is Mark Lamos.

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