Tuesday, February 10, 2009

At What Point . . .

do rock stars become a parody of themselves?

Some empty seats at the November 20 premiere of Steve Nieve's Welcome to the Voice showed that lightweight musical programming does not necessarily guarantee success in the Théâtre du Châtelet's quest for popularity. Welcome to the Voice, originally recorded as a concept album for rock superstars Sting and Elvis Costello and classical soprano Barbara Bonney, is an engagingly simple story of operatic obsession: a Greek foundry worker finally achieves a duet with the diva of his dreams. For this stage premiere, Nieve — a frequent keyboard collaborator of Costello's — expanded his original scoring for string quartet and added an overture, while Muriel Teodori (Nieve's wife) adjusted her libretto. The show was conducted by Wolfgang Doerner. Sting and Costello sang their roles from the concept album, joined by Sylvia Schwartz in Bonney's old role of the Diva. The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris was in the pit.

The show suffered from a serious lack of dramatic rhythm, not helped by Teodori's libretto and its pretentious mix of platitudes: any opera beginning with the repeated word "transcendence" starts at a disadvantage in this respect. The foundry-worker character, sung by Sting, has the portentously classical name of Dionysos, an appellation that promises a complexity of motivation entirely absent from the stage — even though Bernard Arnould's mix of factory and opera-house backstage was handsomely realized. Nieve's score, fluently conducted by Doerner, begins with an overture of moody intensity; his interpolation of opera themes is achieved with some technical skill. When the sleeping Dionysos is visited by three operatic "ghosts"— Carmen, Butterfly and Norma, well sung by Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Sonya Yoncheva and Anna Gabler, respectively — the composer avoids quoting bleeding chunks of each opera but evokes their eternally fascinating heroines by incorporating memorable turns of phrase. Elsewhere, the score reflects a wide range of rock, pop and opera influences with a dash of Sondheim thrown in for good measure, but in the end, rock fans were left hungry for hard-core musical thrills and opera fans were shortchanged by Nieve's lack of vocal sophistication.

The problem of matching the levels of the cast's classically trained voices and the voices of rock performers was addressed via amplification. In general, too much amplification was used for the trained voices, not quite enough for Sting, or for his sound-alike real-life son, Joe Sumner, who played the hero's friend. Fortunately, Sting is a compelling stage presence: despite moments in the score that asked for more than he could manage comfortably, his rough-hewn sincerity and physical charisma carried the show through its ninety long minutes. The major disappointment was Elvis Costello, whose interpretation of the Police Chief was handicapped by inaudibility and a complete lack of vocal muscle on the first night. The best voice belonged to Schwartz. As Lily the diva, the soprano sounded worthy of obsession, even if the use of amplification inevitably muddies any definitive judgment on her vocal gifts. A rock fan remarked as she left the theater that she would like to hear this particular diva in a "real" opera: perhaps some doors were opened by this hybrid experience.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was at the final show and agree ; an appealing album lost in a over done show. And yes, Sylvia Schwartz was the best thing in it.
I commented more on a Costello fan forum -