at Lyric Opera

Before about 1925 opera was a living art, and reviewers were called upon to give opinions of new works they knew had a serious chance of entering the repertory. It’s difficult now to imagine what it would have been like to attend a performance of Aida, Die Meistersinger, or Der Rosenkavalier when those operas had never been seen before. The opera fan of today, unlike his 19th-century predecessor, carries an immense load of baggage in the form of expectations built on previous performances and recordings. Yet there is always a secret yearning to be at the birth of a work one knows will be a lasting success, staged with respect by generations yet unborn. Considering the just fate of most new works, it’s fortunate that the chance to see one is infrequent enough to keep that yearning alive.

In its more than three decades of existence, Lyric Opera has commissioned new works for its main stage only twice before this season: once in 1961, with the now almost-forgotten The Harvest by Vittorio Giannini, and at the end of the 70s, with Krzysztof Penderecki’s Paradise Lost. Even Lyric’s official history dismisses The Harvest as a “disaster.” Evidently notable only for the performance of the young Marilyn Horne, it dropped into the swamp of operatic history, barely raising a ripple. Paradise Lost contributed greatly to the financial hemorrhage that almost led to the company’s ruin and to the revolt of the Lyric board of directors, which ended when Lyric founder Carol Fox was forced out. Various European houses showed some initial interest in the Penderecki work, but not much has been heard of it since. It’s unlikely to survive its composer and probably will share the fate of The Harvest.

But “the third time’s the charm” may apply to the current venture, William Bolcom’s McTeague, which is rather loosely based on Frank Norris’s book of the same name. Picture the relationship of Gounod’s Faust to Goethe’s, or the Volsunga saga to the Ring cycle, and you have the idea. The major characters are the same, the minor characters are often deleted, and the plot is telescoped and rearranged. The launching of McTeague has directed a lot of attention to Stroheim’s film Greed, based on the same novel. But the opera has no more relation to the film than to the book, which may simply indicate that the images in this story are, like other mythic materials, capable of sustaining multiple interpretations.

A 19th-century operagoer would surely be perplexed by the amount of play given the director in our century. A 19th-century premiere would of course have had a director, but he would have been more like an experienced modern stage manager who worked directly for the composer or impresario. It was understood then that an opera would stand or fall on its music and libretto; the costuming, sets, and stage action were no more important than clothes are to a person–if the clothing is unflattering, find something else to wear. In the world of 20th-century opera we too often focus on the ephemeral rather than the fundamental. Megabucks artist David Hockney is advertised as a big draw for a Turandot production. The calculatedly bizarre Peter Sellars garners headlines. Directors with mainstream credentials, like Hal Prince or Robert Altman, come to the theater and their pronouncements are received with a reverence even Wagner could envy. Yet the fact remains that a new opera will enter the repertory based on the strength of the musical and inherent dramatic elements.

William Bolcom didn’t pursue a unified musical style in his opera. Instead he and librettist Arnold Weinstein offer a series of dramatic and musical vignettes in the two acts and 13 scenes. One will not find here the continuity and individuality of style one expects from most operas. But the music, distinctively American in idiom, fits the turn-of-the-century epoch of the story. Sometimes the score descends to the pedestrian level of movie music, but it also reaches the emotion-heightening levels of great opera, especially during the deaths of McTeague and his friend Schouler.

The story is delivered in flashbacks as McTeague proceeds on his last trek through the desert. McTeague, an unlicensed dentist, has hung up his shingle. He falls in love with the pretty Trina, girlfriend and cousin to his buddy Schouler. Trina seems to have some desire to be overwhelmed by a powerful man and is disposed to view Schouler as a wimp. Schouler magnanimously yields Trina to McTeague, but after the marriage takes place and Trina wins a $5,000 lottery prize he decides he was cheated and demands half the money. When told to take a walk, he does–to the public health inspector, who closes down McTeague’s office. The burly McTeague gets caught in a downward spiral, and he and Trina become destitute even though Trina’s still hoarding the $5,000 in gold. His goods finally sold off, McTeague murders her and flees to the desert with the gold. In a final confrontation with Schouler, McTeague kills him, but ends up handcuffed to the corpse miles from water, certain vulture fodder.

As McTeague, Ben Heppner dominates the show, with both his voice and his sheer physical bulk. He gives the impression of an ordinarily gentle giant capable of being roused to violence, and his heroic tenor reflects the emotional strain of his character without resorting to caterwauling and shrieking. Soprano Catherine Malfitano as Trina is a tiny doll in his hands. Her voice is excellent, but she overplays the sick, miserly aspect of Trina, making us lose all sympathy with the character. Timothy Nolen is dramatically strong as the despicable Schouler, even if his voice is showing signs of wear and tear. Emily Golden is almost wasted in the role of the deranged Maria Macapa, to which she brings both a clear, strong voice and first-rate acting ability. Unfortunately, her character adds little to the dramatic action and seems to have been included just to illustrate Schouler’s hypocrisy. The Lyric Opera Orchestra turned in a solid performance for Dennis Russell Davies.

The sets for the show were first-rate, the best for a new production at Lyric in some time. Not only were they strongly evocative of the era of the opera’s action and the changing moods of the scenes, but they also looked as though designer Yuri Kuper had planned them for the Civic Opera House stage. Built in the late 20s, this stage has an immense loft, but little space in the wings, because sets were customarily flown, or dropped from above, in that era; more modern houses, such as the Met, have ample wing space to accommodate modern sets. Most of the McTeague sets were flown, which facilitated quick and seamless changes for the five transitions of the first act and the six of the second.

The direction by Robert Altman was crisp and succinct. Clearly he contributed more to this opera than a director can to a work that’s already in the repertory. His title of colibrettist suggests this, and Bolcom has confirmed it.

This show will not be bumping Carmen off the world’s opera stages. But it may have what it takes to earn a modest place in the repertory, as Britten’s Billy Budd and Barber’s Vanessa have. For a late-20th-century work that’s pretty good company.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.