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HEGGIE: Great Scott

CD Button Pérez, DiDonato, von Stade; Costanzo, Gunn; Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Summers. English text. Erato 0190295940782 (2)

Recordings Great Scott onstage hdl 618
Super bowled over: Gunn and DiDonato in Dallas
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera
Recordings Great Scott lg 618
Critics Choice Button 1015 

GREAT SCOTT, which received its world premiere at Dallas Opera in 2015, is the second collaboration between Jake Heggie, one of the most successful living opera composers, and Terrence McNally, the multiple Tony Award-winning playwright. Their first, the enduringly popular Dead Man Walking, was an adaptation of the well-known book and movie, but Great Scott is an original story. The Scott of the title is Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), a world-famous opera singer who has unearthed a forgotten, unperformed work, Rosa Dolorosa, by a fictional nineteenth-century composer. She has returned to her hometown to star in the world premiere, presented by the local company. Meanwhile, the hometown football team is playing in the Super Bowl across town that night, and Winnie Flato, the opera company’s leading patron (Frederica von Stade), is married to the team’s owner. Arden also encounters her old boyfriend, Sid (a gruffly likable Nathan Gunn), with whom she may or may not reunite romantically.

McNally is enjoyably wry throughout on the subject of his profession. “You should have read the libretto,” the stage manager, Roane, chides Tatyana, the ambitious, foreign-born, up-and-coming diva. “Who reads librettos?” she replies. It’s no joke to McNally and Heggie that Winnie can afford to put on big opera productions only through the indulgence of her sports-team-owning husband. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of the opera premiere and the Super Bowl yields considerable humor. Football scores are projected throughout Rosa Dolorosa, along with subtitles. Tatyana (Ailyn Pérez), who sings the National Anthem to kick off the big game (and is then rushed over to the opera house for Rosa), delivers a hilariously prolonged, ridiculously ornamented and eventually unrecognizable “Star-Spangled Banner.” The intrepid Pérez, with her amusingly indeterminate foreign accent, makes a multicourse meal out of this, backed by a quartet of state troopers.

DiDonato is in prime form, clearly having a blast singing Heggie’s deft and entertaining bel canto pastiche, which allows for some winking meta-humor: in rehearsal, after negotiating some exaggerated vocal acrobatics, DiDonato’s Arden cuts herself off and says, “This shit is hard!”

This is all great fun, but Great Scott has serious issues at its core, one of which is best explored in an initially flirtatious scene between Roane (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Eric, the conductor (bass Kevin Burdette). “Art should be about the world we live in, not a world that was and isn’t anymore,” sings Roane. Costanzo does a wonderful job with his surprisingly vehement manifesto, in which both Heggie and McNally cut loose in refreshingly imaginative ways, ending with a startling assertion: “Opera isn’t new: it’s over.” Burdette, who’s grand and commanding as the maestro, also appears in Arden’s dressing room as the ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti, the opera’s dead composer. Bazzetti agrees that we should always seek out what’s new. In this scene, we hear a brief excerpt from MedeaRefracted, the contemporary work Arden has been asked to star in, and it’s some of the opera’s most stimulating music.

Von Stade is unsurprisingly magnificent and endearing as Winnie, who was also Arden’s early mentor. Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes are entertaining as, respectively, a lively but dim tenor and a vain, hunky baritone who cheerfully live up to their stereotypes. But though the writers enjoy lampooning their art form, they make their true feelings clear. As Winnie sings toward the end, “We of privilege in this magical room, we live in a world of beauty and grace. We will share that world, increase and multiply it.” And Arden gets a happily ever-after ending with Sid. The surging music is patronizing, but the moral seems to be that Arden now lives in the present, as one should, rather than fixated on the past. 

Great Scott argues very well for art in general, and contemporary opera in particular. The presence of the expert Patrick Summers on the podium is, as always, a great boon.  —Joshua Rosenblum 



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