Saturday night, May 7, 2016, marked the debut of Jake Heggie’s Great Scott at San Diego Opera, it having received its world premiere at Dallas Opera in October 2015. Despite the considerable cost of this production, and San Diego Opera’s near-death experience two years ago, our opera company to its credit, kept its commitment to produce this piece, always a risk with a new production and doubly so, given the cast of experienced, and undoubtedly well-paid singers. The question then is, was it worth it? The answer: a resounding Yes.
I had enjoyed Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, not perhaps a deathless masterpiece, but at times quite beautiful, with music that was complex and accessible at the same time. I read a few of the reviews of the Dallas opening of Great Scott, found them to be mixed, but more importantly, the comments by regular opera goers on Internet bulletin boards were more enthusiastic.
Here in San Diego, Heggie, his librettist Terrence McNally, and stage director Jack O’Brien would have the chance to improve on the original. We were informed that 15-20 minutes were cut from the original score, which most commentators found too long, and reading the plot summary, which was obviously based on the original, one can see where cuts were made. Given that the First Act was still overly long, those cuts were undoubtedly a good thing.
When I first read about Great Scott, a story of a struggling opera company being saved by a returning hometown diva staging a newly discovered bel canto opera, I was concerned that it would turn into just a big opera in-joke with the kind of arch humor I personally loathe. Fortunately, it is saved from this fate by good music, good singing, and an excellent staging. Additionally, the comments on the modern opera scene are both apt and amusing.
In Great Scott, the “American Opera Company” headed by Winnie Flato, has invited back its hometown diva Arden Scott, who has decided to sing the lead in a previously unstaged (and fictional) bel canto opera, Rosa Dolorosa, figlia di Pompei, composed by the also fictional Vittorio Bazzetti in 1835. (Interestingly, no fictitious librettist is mentioned.) This, of course, allows composer Heggie and librettist McNally to create an imitation bel canto opera before our eyes, with excerpts from rehearsals and staging as highlights of the opera. The plot itself is rather complicated to summarize, but the libretto explores the issues of career versus stability and love, the struggle of opera to survive in the modern world, competition among singers, the issue of presenting new music rather than warhorses and the lives of backstage personnel.
The opera opened with a real overture, not just a prelude, which could stand alone as a concert piece. The music that followed was at times beautifully lyrical. Rosa’s cavatina in the First Act was actually rather beautiful bel canto, and Arden’s meditations on her life’s goals were moving indeed. Additional music, particularly that related to artistic issues; for examples, the stage manager’s advocacy of modern music, and the cast members’ clever alphabetic number on their busy schedules (which perhaps should be shortened) were both cutting and amusing.
Some music, of course, was deliberately imitative. There was a Rossini crescendo in Rosa Dolorosa and some of the numbers with chorus resembled Bellini’s Norma. Additionally a quartet near the end for high voices, including a countertenor, was obviously modeled on the Rosenkavalier trio. It was beautiful, if not quite matching Strauss’s masterpiece.
All the cast members were excellent. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, stepping into the role of Arden Scott rather late in the game when Isabel Leonard cancelled, sang her role beautifully, handling with aplomb the coloratura of Rosa Dolorosa and acting and singing with assurance the conflicted Arden Scott. Nathan Gunn, a big name in the opera world, was fine in the surprisingly small role of Sid Taylor. Lebanese-Canadian Joyce soprano El-Khoury was superb in the fun role of very ambitious Russian soprano Tatyana Bakst, whose rendition of the Star Bangled Banner, accompanied by a quartet of policemen, was one the big and hilarious highlights of the show. The audience favorite was countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, really an excellent actor and who practically danced part of his role. His rendition of his paean to modern music was a knockout. Of course, Frederica von Stade, who thankfully, has not really retired, was great as Winnie Flato, (“the buck stops here”) company boss, whose husband owns the hometown football team playing in the Super Bowl.
Sets, including projections, were excellent, with a great video of the American flag and a wonderful erupting volcano. The god Amore, descending from Olympus with a message, was a nice touch, first in the rehearsal, with his bare buns exposed, supposedly unintentionally, and then in his over-the-top costume in the actual opera.
I highly recommend attendance at this opera. It is good enough and complicated enough that those who have the time and money might want to take it in twice. My understanding is that representatives of other opera companies were present Saturday night or will be attending other performances, so perhaps, as with other Heggie operas, this work will get some consistent exposure.