Clas­si­cal meets mod­ern dur­ing pre­miere

Tampa Bay Times - - Tampa Bay - BY AN­DREW MEACHAM Times Cor­re­spon­dent

TAMPA — The only sched­uled per­for­mance of Lady Swan­white opened Satur­day to high hopes and un­cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions. A small or­ches­tra painted a brood­ing spell on the set, a me­dieval cas­tle.

Com­poser An­ton Cop­pola watched from a box just off stage right at the David A. Straz Jr. Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, next to his nephew and muse, film di­rec­tor Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, who sug­gested his un­cle write an opera around an Au­gust Strind­berg play. The el­der Cop­pola, Opera Tampa’s for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor, turns 102 next month.

He reveres Puc­cini, who died when Cop­pola was 7. But this is no throw­back opera. If any­thing, he has ex­panded on the Ital­ian com­poser’s verismo style, with fea­tured gritty plot lines set in a then-present day, coun­ter­in­tu­itive har­monies and even out­right dis­so­nances. While

Lady Swan­white is set in the past, its style be­longs squarely in the 21st cen­tury, which gives com­posers free rein. Pro­duc­tions can be min­i­mal­ist (Phae­dra, 2011) or more ex­trav­a­gant

(Anna Ni­cole, 2008), bor­row from baroque or jazz or rock mu­sic or use mul­ti­ple styles within the same opera.

For au­di­ences used to the old fa­vorites (or “warhorses,” a some­times con­de­scend­ing term ap­plied to the likes of Car­men or La Travi­ata), con­tem­po­rary opera of­ten skips what tra­di­tional op­eras con­sid­ered the main course — mere arias, duets, quar­tets and cho­ruses. Lady Swan­white fa­vors this more spar­tan ap­proach, and the re­sult can be jar­ring.

There is at least one aria by Swan­white early on, played with child­like ex­u­ber­ance by Maria Brea in the tit­u­lar role. But the over­all recita­tive style, with its leaps and drops fol­low­ing the con­tours of or­di­nary speech, makes even these mo­ments dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize. This for­mat takes some getting used to. At times it isn’t even clear vo­cal melodies were meant to re­flect the emo­tions be­ing con­veyed by per­form­ers on the stage; as op­posed to be­ing cho­sen al­most at ran­dom to set a script to mu­sic.

A sense of au­di­ence be­wil­der­ment (which Cop­pola pre­dicted in an in­ter­view last week) likely does not ap­ply to much of the opera, es­pe­cially in key scenes in which the mu­sic con­veys poignancy. More­over, an or­ches­tral score con­ducted by Jorge Par­odi tells the en­tire story with elo­quence and wit, be­gin­ning with a flute solo re­flect­ing Swan­white’s fas­ci­na­tion with birds and cul­mi­nat­ing with the fu­neral dirge for a drowned prince.

Mid­way through, an in­ter­mezzo be­tween the two acts be­spoke brood­ing forces at work (so much so that one vo­cal coach in the au­di­ence heard a nod to Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s The God­fa­ther). Mean­while, a dra­matic and univer­sal story — ar­guably the real main course — un­folds with all of the moods in­tended in the play, which Strind­berg de­buted in 1901 while re­cov­er­ing from a sui­ci­dal de­pres­sion.

In the story, Swan­white learns from her father, a duke (bari­tone Mark Wal­ters), that she has been con­scripted to marry a king. To pre­pare her, he hires a hand­some prince to teach her to learn courtly lifestyle and eti­quette. The pair never gets around to any of that, fall­ing in­stantly in love. Both are still griev­ing the loss of their moth­ers, com­plet­ing their bond. Tenor Thomas Massey showed a lit­tle thin­ness to­ward the top of his range, but also power and an ex­pres­sive abil­ity. A cou­ple of brief duets with Brea, her­self a ver­sa­tile so­prano, helped ce­ment them as a cou­ple. A longer, stun­ning duet be­tween so­prano Kristi Bein­hauer and mezzo-so­prano Jor­dan Blair Camp­bell as the ghosts of Swan­white’s and the prince’s moth­ers opens the sec­ond act. It is the show’s most mu­si­cally com­plete mo­ment.

This ro­mance does not at all suit the de­signs of the duke’s wife, known only as the Step­mother, who would rather the prince marry her daugh­ter, who prob­a­bly doesn’t even ex­ist. Mezzo-so­prano Jes­sica Best gives the show’s best per­for­mance as the step­mother, who spend most of the play ter­ror­iz­ing Swan­white and her ser­vants. In her role, those un­ex­pected melodic leaps made sense, and her para­noia and grief over a long-ago death dom­i­nate the stage.

When her plans go awry, she ac­cuses Swan­white of los­ing her vir­gin­ity. The duke, dis­cov­er­ing that the al­le­ga­tion is false, threat­ens to have his wife ex­e­cuted un­til Swan­white in­ter­venes on her be­half. This un­ex­pected mercy changes the step­mother’s heart, but not in time to save the prince, who has drowned try­ing to es­cape her wrath. Can Swan­white’s love breathe life back into the prince? She puts his life­less hand to her heart.

In the play, the move jump­starts the prince’s heart. Cop­pola, ever the con­trar­ian, de­cided to with­hold that sat­is­fac­tion from the au­di­ence, leav­ing it an open ques­tion. Maybe that’s be­cause for him, it doesn’t mat­ter whether love ac­tu­ally tri­umphs over lit­eral death. Only be­lief mat­ters, and she be­lieves.

Cop­pola walked out to face the cheer­ing au­di­ence, this time ditch­ing his walker for a cane. Af­ter first ac­knowl­edg­ing the or­ches­tra and ev­ery­one else he could think of, he fi­nally took a bow, then waved and walked off­stage.

Photo by Will Sta­ples

Thomas Massey as the Prince and Maria Brea as Lady Swan­white per­form in Opera Tampa’sLady Swan­white by com­poser An­ton Cop­pola.

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