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Charlotte is the big town in North Carolina, and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center is where it struts its urban stuff. The Belk Theater is quite the impressive venue, and a fitting site for Opera Carolina's new production of the opera based on Edmond Rostand's classic French play from 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac. They were joined by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the pit, and the men of the Johnson C. Smith University Choir. Composer David DiChiera, has had a long and distinguished opera career in Michigan. Now 82, in February 2016 he announced his retirement from the Michigan Opera Theater, of which he is a founding member, effective July 2017. As the Fates would have it, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2017. We all wish him the best in this difficult time; it is a shame that he was not able to attend this concert.
First, a touch of historical context from the life of the real Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano was born in 1619, the year after the start of the Thirty Years' War, the most deadly and destructive conflict in central Europe until WWII. When he was 19, he served for two years, including the Siege of Arras fighting the Spanish; this featured in the play and opera, in stylized form. There one of his brothers-in-arms was Baron Christian of Neuvillette, who married Cyrano's cousin. Cyrano had a reputation for arrogance and boasting, but did manage to survive the carnage. Afterwards, he went to Paris to write plays and poems, as well as some of the earliest examples of what came to be known as science fiction. Details of his life are sketchy, including the cause of his death at age 36; probably some kind of attack, given the times and his libertine way of life.
Into the relative void of information and romantic haze, Rostand created a genuine masterpiece of fiction, whose central story line addresses the age-old problems of desire and attachment, beauty and ugliness, surface versus depth, meaning versus appearance, jealousy versus love, and the incredible degree of violence that seems intrinsic to the human beast. As the story is so well-known, I will not detail it here; it has been retold many times (my favorite is Steve Martins's Roxanne), and the play is frequently performed and filmed.
There is a danger in picking such a well-worn vehicle for an opera, but this is more than compensated by the guaranteed quality of the libretto. And it cannot be forgotten that grand opera is the most expensive of all stage shows; this score calls for all the bells and whistles, with full orchestra, chorus, and twelve characters with singing roles. Given the effort to pull this off, it is a good idea to come to the party with a project likely to be appreciated. The libretto is by Bernard Uzan, who also directed this production. He stuck closely to the original; the result is that the three-act opera, including the two intermissions, runs three hours. That’s not huge by opera standards, but it is an endurance contest for those used to shorter events. In addition, he kept the book in French, thus not encountering the many difficulties of translation in this highly idiomatic play – the original is, after all, in verse, which certainly aids in setting to music, but complicates any English version. There was a prose translation projected above the stage, which was most helpful.
One example of the difficulty involved the word "panache" which has achieved currency in English only because of Rostand's play, in which it is the last word spoken. Literally, it means "plume" as in the feather worn in hats, but the idiomatic meaning is a grand or flamboyant manner. One translation, for a movie of the play of just a few years ago, had Cyrano say "my white plume," which made no sense, but was literal. There’s no winning on this issue, since there is a double meaning in the French – and it's the most famous word in the play. In this opera, for the translation, they went with "panache." Spoiler alert!
The sets were expertly done, with special emphasis on creative lighting effects and projections of period art and architecture in the background, as well as the Hubble Telescope deep field photographs of distant galaxies for the night scenes. (Astrophysicists may quibble that the background showed only light from objects that could never be seen with the naked eye, and without any actual stars, but it does make for a colorful backdrop.) Also notable were the many period costumes. They must have done a lot of sewing back in the 1640's, and in this case, the men's chorus needed at least two costumes, and many others required changes as well. The audience got a chance to see that work up close when some singers visited the lobby before the show, and it was most impressive. I rather wish I had some of that in my closet for parties.
Cyrano was impressively sung by baritone John Viscardi; Roxanne, by soprano Magali Simard-Galdés; and Christian de Neuvillette by tenor Sébastien Guèze. The usual idea in opera is that the baritone or bass tries to keep the tenor from getting the girl, and then everyone dies. That's the story here, more or less. The Capuchin monk who marries Roxanne and Christian just before the bad jealous baritone (DeGuiche, sung by Kyle Albertson) sends the tenor groom off to war to die is sung by countertenor Randall Scotting. What a castrato joined together, let no man put asunder. There is more than a little gender-bending in this production, especially at the very beginning with foppish courtiers and a parody of baroque opera. In fact, the ideal of masculine beauty that seems to be preferred by the women is for them to look as feminine as possible, except with swords and the willingness to use them on one another at the slightest provocation. Men of the era, and through the 18th century as well, competed with one another for the shapeliest calves, which one can see in statues and portraits of the time. This only ended with the coming of long pants.
The subtext of the play and opera is more than a touch depressing, if you consider it carefully. Cyrano is the brightest wit of the lot, but he has been so damaged by reaction to his nose that he kills when it is mentioned, and remains without love in his life. Women cannot relate to him as a man and mate, no matter how much they admire his murderous rage and martial skills. And Roxanne, the object of so much slavish devotion and sacrifice, is in that exalted position by wealth, birth, and beauty, not content of character, but she is so dim in the head that she can’t tell the most obvious fact about her closest friend during fourteen years. She insists on endless praise and supplication, on being told in elaborate terms how much she is loved, or she will throw the poor devil away.
DiChiera has great understanding of opera, and knows voice and the musical theater; but he is not an experienced composer with a long catalogue of works. His idiom is accessible, frequently quite tonal, and would be acceptable in many movies, which I appreciate. The orchestration in this score is similar to many composers of the last few generations, especially in America, which is very heavy on the brass and percussion, and light on the strings.
With the orchestra deep in the pit, I never heard any of the lower strings or softer woodwinds; for much of the opera, only the brass and timpani were audible, or predominated to an enormous extent. This was true even in passages where brass instruments were really not appropriate. The result was tiresome to the ears, and wasted the hard work of at least half the orchestra. DiChiera's melodic sense was not on the lyrical side, even though ostensibly tonal, and I couldn't pick up any melodies, themes, or motifs. It was a wonder that the singers could memorize and sing these parts with such accuracy, without the benefit of melodies idiomatic to the voice. Instead, as is so often the case, there was a flood of novel ideas in each measure, all disconnected from the rest of the music. The audience packed the Belk Theater for this first performance, but the net result of this flood of novelty was that by the third act, there were a significant number of empty seats.
So, while this opera will not take its place in the standard repertoire, it is quite enjoyable for the opera fan, superbly produced by highly skilled professionals, and based on an excellent play that has stood the test of time for its eloquence. I recommend seeing this if you can, and by doing so, supporting the production of new operas, which we so sorely need to keep the art form alive.