The works on tap for the Fort Worth Opera's 2013 festival, presented April 20 through May 12, would seem to be, at first glance, a delightfully eclectic mix of grand musical theater. They range from a bright and bouncy 19th-century Italian comedy to a darkly intense drama by a contemporary American composer.
But if this tuneful mix, which also includes a purposely self-contradicting comedy-drama and an archly romantic tragedy, seems hard to grasp, you might think of it this way: This festival is all about lovers and fighters.
The quartet of operas in this year's festival are rich in extremes, promising an event filled with highly contrasting musical styles, visual elements and theatrical emotions. Here are brief breakdowns of the operas to be presented, with an emphasis on who will be doing the wooing and who will be doing the warring.
This 1896 Puccini opera is one of the most beloved in the entire repertoire, thanks to its gorgeously melodic arias and its cast of lovelorn artists -- the bohemians who inspire the title. The opera is loaded with lovers, and the only fighters are the story's starving artists who are consistently battling to find their next meals.
The somewhat disjointed plot, based on a novel by Henry Murger, takes us into the lives of a group of poets, musicians and painters who are barely scraping by in 19th-century Paris.
The leads, Rodolfo (tenor Sean Panikkar) and Mimi (soprano Mary Dunleavy), meet and fall in love early on. But in tragic opera, love affairs rarely run smoothly, and this one is no exception. The lovers are forced to part because Mimi's health is worsening. They are, however, reunited in the final act just in time for (spoiler alert!) Mimi, who has been coughing pretty much since the opening curtain, to sing her last notes. But you might have seen that coming. Mimi is, after all, a Puccini soprano. And their survival rate is abysmal.
If that all sounds a lot like Rent, it should. That popular musical is a modern, Broadway-esque version of the opera. And the continuing success of Rent serves as clear evidence of the timeless appeal of La Bohème's characters and story.
All the poverty, romantic discord and failing health in La Bohème may suggest a tortured journey. But Puccini distracts us from the misery of these artistic misfits' existence with a series of unforgettable musical moments. Among the arias you will especially want to listen for are Che gelida manina, an Act 1 introduction from Rodolfo that warms Mimi's cold hands and her heart, and a section of the second act known as Musetta's Waltz, in which the saucy vixen rejoices in her irresistibility over one of Puccini's most memorable melodies.
So there is a great deal more loving than fighting in La Bohème -- although Musetta (soprano Rosa Betancourt) is a source of some conflict. And the opera wears its badge of tragic love proudly in both its narrative and its voice.
The Daughter of the Regiment
This Donizetti opera, written during the Parisian period of the Italian composer's incredibly prolific career, is a bright and cheerful comedy that is, ironically, populated almost entirely by warriors.
The story centers on Marie (soprano Ava Pine), an orphan raised by a French regiment and considered its mascot, or "daughter." She is obligated to marry some member of the regiment's ranks, but before that day arrives, two complications arise: a wandering tenor, Tonio (tenor David Portillo), who saves Marie's life and wins her heart, and the Marquise of Birkenfeld (mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle), who claims to be Marie's aunt. Tonio is left in the lurch when the marquise whisks Marie away to her castle and arranges a marriage for her there.
But the spunky Marie proves to be an able warrior of love as she melodically, and often hilariously, navigates her way around these forced marital obligations to ultimately storm the ramparts of her true love's heart.
This delightful comedy is such a romp that it is easy to miss how rich it is musically. Donizetti was one of the foremost practitioners of the bel canto (or "beautiful singing") style of opera that asks a great deal of its singers. So Marie is a demanding, coloratura role that requires a light, quick and exceptionally lyrically vocal approach. One indicator of the significance and heft of this work is that it was one of the signature operas of the great Beverly Sills, who played and sang the role of Marie as if born to it.
One of the most anticipated aspects of this production is the return of Pine in the title role. Pine, a native Texan who starred in the company's production of Mark Adamo's Lysistrata last year, has established herself as a favorite of Fort Worth audiences in numerous performances with local ensembles. The part of the irrepressible Marie should be an ideal vehicle for her superior vocal and acting talents. If there is any singer who can convert a band of warriors into a legion of lovers, it is Pine.
Another interesting casting move is a singer who is making his debut with the company, although you might know his name. Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods will sing the comic role of the valet, Hortensius, marking the first time the former professional tenor has performed in one of his company's productions.
Ariadne auf Naxos
Where the previous operas reveal themselves to be extreme opposites (a tragic romance about artists versus a frothy comedy filled with soldiers) when set side by side, this 1912 opera by Richard Strauss carries all of its high contrasts internally. It is an often zany mix of low comedy (or opera buffa) and archly tragic drama ( opera seria). And both levels have their own lead lover. On the serious side, there is title character Ariadne (soprano Marjorie Owens), who suffers from her lover's cold disaffection. And on the comic side, there is the effervescent and flirtatious Zerbinetta (soprano Audrey Luna), who turns the heads of most of the male characters.
The setting for this mishmash of two radically different stage entertainments is an 18th-century Viennese aristocrat's manor, where two performances have been scheduled: one featuring a troupe of comedians, the other offering a deadly serious opera set along classical themes. But, oh, look at the time. The fireworks must go on as scheduled. So, it is hastily determined that the two entertainments will be presented simultaneously. What could go wrong?
The result is a zany attempt by both troupes to deliver a credible performance while trying to ignore the thundering clashes of styles that vie for attention on the often overpopulated stage. But it turns out that Ariadne could not have wished for a better guide through the minefields of love than Zerbinetta. With her help, Ariadne is able to forget all about that no-good cad Theseus, who jilted her and left her alone on the title island, and take up with nothing less than a god: the party-loving Bacchus (tenor Corey Bix).
Fort Worth Opera is particularly excited about the casting of Luna as Zerbinetta. She has extensive experience with this opera, having sung this same role last summer at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Festival. In 2010, she made her debut with New York's Metropolitan Opera, singing the daunting Queen of the Night role in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Everything about her résumé, which is heavy with vocal competition victories, suggests a diva on the rise.
So this opera's comic personality arises from its conflicts. And it is exceptionally story-driven, as operas go. Ariadne includes spoken dialogue, which keeps the storyline clear and sometimes makes it feel almost like an operetta or musical. But it is also known for its glorious vocal parts, an aspect of Strauss' talent that might be overlooked by those who know him only for his tone poems and other orchestral works. Anyone who has heard works such as Strauss' Four Last Songs knows what to expect here, where the only troops are the troupes of players and where the lovers carry the day despite everything.
It is in this 2006 work by American composer Tom Cipullo that the theme of warriors and lovers becomes most literal and tangible.
This opera, which is receiving its regional premiere at the festival, is based on the book of the same title by Tom Philpott that tells the true story of Col. Jim Thompson (tenor David Blalock, baritone Michael Mayes), a prisoner during the Vietnam War for nine years who returned home to learn that his wife had sought to declare him dead and is living with another man.
The first act (called a tableau in this work) deals with how the warrior coped with his captivity, and how the lover -- his wife, Alyce (soprano Sydney Mancasola, soprano Caroline Worra) -- dealt with her husband's long absence. In the second tableau ( Welcome Home), Thompson returns from Vietnam and wants to once again be a husband and father. But he finds his family situation horribly changed.
This ripped-from-headlines drama features only four singers: one couple that represents the Thompsons during the Vietnam years and another representing them after Thompson's return in 1973. But the nonlinear structure of the work calls for interaction among all four. A New York Times review of a 2010 production noted that "one of the work's immediate attractions is the efficiency of its structure," and praised the composer's feel for orchestral color.
So the lovers and warriors are quite clearly delineated in this intriguing new work.
This production, presented in the intimate space of McDavid Studio, a cozy venue across the street from Bass Hall, is part of the company's Opera Unbound series, which presents new, smaller-scale works (or chamber operas) as part of the festival.
Although the setting of Glory Denied is much more recent, it has the potential to deliver the same high levels of passion promised by the more familiar works in this highly varied and purposely contrasting festival of operas that may leave you willing to go to war for love.