> North America
The Aspern Papers
Recycled Papers: Deshorties, Graham and Gunn in Dallas Opera's revival of Argento's Aspern adaptation
© Karen Almond, Dallas Opera 2013
Twenty-five years ago, Dallas Opera commissioned its first world premiere, The AspernPapers,from American composer Dominick Argento. Argento's thirteenth opera, Aspern was adapted from Henry James's novella about a "publishing scoundrel" who tries to get hold of a fabled cache of letters by a long-dead poet, modeled on Lord Byron. In the opera, Aspern is a composer; the scene has shifted from Venice to Lake Como; the sought-for papers of the title are now the score of Medea, Aspern's last work, an opera long thought lost and never performed.
Aspern has held up well. Dallas Opera presented it again in April 2013, in an excellent new production by Tim Albery and conducted by outgoing DO music director Graeme Jenkins. The action shifts back and forth between 1885, when a scholarly lodger comes in search of the lost score, and 1835, when the composer has just finished it. Jenkins ended his distinguished career in Dallas with five performances of The Aspern Papers, and he led the orchestra with sensitive authority, bringing out all the luster in the score. Albery's stage direction and Andrew Lieberman's scenic designs were sensible, meaningful and unobtrusive. The principal characters are the questing lodger, alternately seductive and unfeeling, sung in Dallas by Nathan Gunn; the youthful Romantic composer, sung by tenor Joseph Kaiser; Juliana Bordereau (Alexandra Deshorties), Aspern's youthful mistress and muse, now a desiccated recluse, and her niece Tina, a middle-aged spinster (Susan Graham). The story, well-known to James readers, is about the intersections of life and art. The opera gives James's story a twist: Aspern's opera, Medea, draws a parallel between the vengeance wrought by the Greek witch on her former lover, Jason, and the real-life situation of the Bordereau ladies, both of whom have been betrayed in their turn.
Dallas's singers were in top form. Graham, who was making her much-anticipated Dallas Opera debut, endowed Tina with timidity at first, then with passion, steel and vengefulness, as her character blossomed from an uncertain, unworldly wallflower into a heroic woman bent on vindication. Her voice was glorious from its shimmering top to its rich bottom notes; her vocal line was seamless. Deshorties, too, met all the dramatic and vocal challenges of her role, alternating convincingly between the young beauty and the bitter, abandoned old lady.
Gunn and Kaiser also sang brilliantly. As Barelli, the impresario who is also Aspern's romantic rival, Dean Peterson made a strong impression. Sasha Cooke took the role of Sonia, Barelli's mistress, with whom Aspern has become infatuated, and sang with steadiness and youthful exuberance.
Almost everything in the performance was triumphant — the scope of the drama; the pacing of the story and the unfolding of human emotions; and much of the richly inventive music, which contains different post-Puccinian modes, with melody tempered by dissonance, interesting orchestration and varying colors. One heard Argento's debt to Barber and Britten, as well as his own distinctive musical temperament.
The Winspear Opera House has marvelous acoustics, and when the music was soft, the orchestration spare, or in the rare moments of spoken recitative, the performers' diction and delivery were lovely. At the end of Act I, Tina tells the Lodger, "Do as you please." Graham and Gunn sang a cappella as Tina vowed to help him in his quest. The orchestra — first the horns, then the strings — picked up her four-note phrase and built an interlude as the Lodger mused silently before repeating the phrase. Gunn's rich baritone, like Graham's lush mezzo, has sweetness at the top as well as power in the lower range. In the Prologue to Act II, the Lodger recounts the story of Medea, with appropriately minimal, slinky and creepy orchestration, and Gunn's voice rang clear and strong. At the end of Act II, Tina speaks the line "I can't stay with you any longer, I can't" — and the following extended silence, before the Lodger takes his leave, produced an intake in the audience's collective breath.
A single flaw persisted, to the enduring detriment of the performance: when the volume was high, some of the sung music was unintelligible, because the orchestra occasionally drowned out the superb singers in this acoustically alive house. One was grateful for the projected titles, which helped the listener to decipher some very murky sounds.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.