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Frivolity and tragedy in Anchorage Opera double bill

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2015

The stage of Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall Auditorium has been altered to accommodate Anchorage Opera's production of two one-acts in the 200-seat theater. A hip-high curtain separates the audience from a 15-piece orchestra at the front of the stage and the area behind the proscenium has been built up to place the action above the instruments. A few pieces of furniture dot Carrie Yanagawa's set, which is dominated by a large, ominous reproduction of the manuscript for the "Dies Irae" section of Mozart's Requiem filling the back wall.

The Requiem is among Mozart's most serious pieces. But the offering that opens the double bill is his lighthearted entertainment "The Impresario." Described as a "comedy with music," it's sort of a "Saturday Night Live" skit with better music. Aside from the dazzling overture, two arias and two ensembles, the lines are spoken. Happily, playwright Deborah Brevoort's English translation freshens up the repartee and keeps it both clever and funny.

She has also tweaked the roster. The spoken title role and his singing buffa sidekick are rolled into a single character, Buff, played by David Haynes. The opera starts with him listening impatiently to the dazzling overture from a desk and gesturing at the conductor, Richard Gordon, to speed things up. Several other speaking parts are likewise compressed into three singing characters.

The setup for the plot has Buff urging Mozart, sung by Robert McPherson, to dumb down his art to make it more popular; in Brevoort's version, the composer takes the place of the tenor, Herr Vogelsang in the original. Mozart doesn't want to do that but the orchestra, which threatens to leave more than once, must be paid.

An aging singer and a younger singer, sung by Kira Eckenweiler and Christine Keene, respectively, are both recruited on the grounds that their star power will put butts in the seats. But each wants to be the prima donna. Their arguments and demands threaten to kill the project until Mozart himself threatens to pull the plug rather than compromise. Both ladies agree to perform, just not on the same stage at the same time. Which is too bad, because the best music, aside from the overture, is in the ensembles when they sing -- or rage -- together.

The singing on Friday was much better than last year's "Marriage Contract" in the same venue and the stage action seemed to be much smoother, due in no small part to Haynes' grace as a physical comedian. The witty spoken dialogue also helped the show succeed and left the audience laughing.

The second half, also sung in English, was no laughing matter. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Mozart and Salieri," based on Pushkin's verse drama, is essentially the plot of "Amadeus" tucked into two scenes that run just more than half an hour. With a strong and beautiful bass, Derrick Parker made a larger-than-life Salieri. His powerful, silken singing was the high point of the night. McPherson returned as Mozart, now singing rather than speaking with a heartfelt tenor that hardly seemed to be the same voice we'd heard in "The Impresario."

The set and costumes were the same but the musical contrast was startling. Rimsky-Korsakov was not without melodic gifts and his operas often gush with them. But in this one it's almost as if he were trying to do in music what Chekhov did with theater. There is an edgy dryness and hard realism to Salieri's struggle with the "serpent of envy." No one stops the drama to break into a poignant lament or vengeance aria. Yet the subdued climax, when Mozart says good night to the man he thinks is his friend, who has just served him poison, is heartbreaking.

But it's heartbreaking in the way of drama or poetry, not the way opera usually does it: which is to say, not with a sword but with a word. Written in 1897, it feels more like a modern piece. But it has a good degree of profundity and made an impressive, if unusual, counterpoint to the frivolous first half of the show. The audience that laughed throughout "The Impresario" left in a meditative mood.

THE IMPRESARIO and MOZART AND SALIERI will be presented at 4 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday through March 1 at APU's Grant Hall. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4332.

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