“The Aspern Papers” at Dallas Opera

Dallas, Texas, Dallas Opera, 2012–13 Season
Opera in two acts, after the novella by Henry James
Music and libretto by Dominick Argento
Tina Bordereau SUSAN GRAHAM
Jeffrey Aspern JOSEPH KAISER
The Gardener MARK McCRORY
Orchestra and Chorus of the Dallas Opera
Conductor Graeme Jenkins
Chorus Master Alexander Rom
Stage Director Tim Albery
Set Design Andrew Lieberman
Costume Design Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design Thomas Hase
Dallas, Texas, 12 April 2013
Inaugurated in 1957 by Maria Callas (first in concert, later in Lucia, La Traviata, and Medea) and Giulietta Simionato (in Cenerentola), Dallas Opera for many years pursued a conservative course, largely reflecting the affinities of the city itself and those of its first artistic director, conductor Nicola Rescigno: world-class artists performed mostly 19th-century Italian repertoire. The company’s first major commission, Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers, had its premiere a few years after Rescigno left, and in many ways it signaled an important break in operational philosophy: by 1988, a rival Texan company, Houston Grand Opera, had already established itself as one of the most important venues for new American work, and it was widely presumed that Dallas was trying to catch up.
Typically for Dallas, the premiere of Aspern Papers featured a stellar cast, including Frederica von Stade, Elisabeth Söderström, and Richard Stilwell — and it was broadcast on national television. But a steady succession of other commissions did not follow. (Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin in 2001 and Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick in 2010 are the only others, but Joby Talbot’s Everest and Heggie’s Great Scott will both see premieres in Dallas in 2015.) As for The Aspern Papers itself, a few other companies in the U.S. and in Europe mounted it subsequently, but the work fell into neglect thereafter, an experience that is unfortunately not uncommon with this much-admired composer and teacher, who is now 85.
For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the world premiere, Dallas Opera devised an entirely new production, staged by Tim Albery, with another top-notch cast, including mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (who was born in New Mexico but grew up in Texas) making her company debut, and conductor Graeme Jenkins ending his tenure as the company’s music director. Hearing the work again, one understands Dallas’ justifiable pride in The Aspern Papers: it deserves this lavish attention, and this thoughtful rehearing.
James’ novella concerns the efforts of a scholar to uncover lost manuscripts of a dead poet, Jeffrey Aspern, who represents the kind of European-style literary forebear that the younger culture of the United States simply did not have in James’ day: a combination of the early-nineteenth-century American expatriates Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with a dose of England’s Lord Byron thrown in.  Argento wisely makes Aspern a composer, so that the audience can more easily experience the character’s art; having written a Venetian opera (Casanova’s Homecoming) immediately prior to Aspern Papers, Argento transplanted the story from James’ original setting to the shores of Lake Como. The plot more closely follows the outlines of the novella, as the scholar (here called the Lodger) attempts to seduce the timid spinster Tina Bordereau, in order to obtain manuscripts he believes to be in the possession of her aunt Juliana, who in her youth was Aspern’s lover.
The score is dark and troubled from the outset, with evocations of the rippling waters of Lake Como at night, the setting for almost every scene (posing challenges that the lighting designer, Thomas Hase, did not quit meet satisfactorily). Argento glides in and out of the “past,” 1835, when Juliana is a young operatic soprano, and the “present,” 1885, when (portrayed by the same singer) she has become a suspicious, domineering recluse. In both past and present, the characters sing past one another, hardly listening to what others say to them, creating almost combative ensemble numbers, which Maestro Jenkins guided with exceptional clarity and point.  While the music remains tonal and accessible, it eschews conventional melodies, opting to underscore and accentuate the drama rather than to respect traditional structures. Although Argento includes extended excerpts from Aspern’s opera Medea, he does nothing to imitate the prevailing bel canto style of the 1830s: Aspern sounds exactly like Argento, and at this remove, that seems like a missed opportunity.
The cast proved exceptionally well chosen, and all offered excellent diction in the English-language libretto. Graham’s specialty is rich sensuality, which has made her forays into French repertoire so compelling but which might seem wrong for the thoroughly repressed Tina. However, the prospect of love transforms this character, and Graham blossomed along with her. By the opera’s final scene, in which Tina burns the precious manuscripts (in a real fire onstage), the singer incarnated a passion that reflected both Tina’s aunt, the diva, and the vengeance of Medea. Juliana never quite rises to Medea stature, even when another woman threatens her love for Aspern: the vengeance she seeks is delivered by accident, not by active agency. But she’s possessed of terrifying fury and haunted by guilt. Onstage, soprano Alexandra Deshorties conveys a wildness of temperament (although not, it should be said, a wildness of technique) that suited the character perfectly. And baritone Nathan Gunn’s handsome affability and graceful singing ably conveyed the Lodger’s absolute certainty that he’s the master of a situation that is in truth far beyond his control at every step along the way.
James never depicts Aspern directly — the reader knows only what other characters say about him — but Argento makes him a participant in the drama. That said, his characterization remains somewhat restrained, and even as he seduces another singer, Sonia, under Juliana’s own roof, he doesn’t display the Byronic fervor one really expects. Tenor Joseph Kaiser cut a dashing figure onstage and sang his lines with conviction but couldn’t transcend the limitations Argento placed on him.  Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke fared better as Sonia, her bright lyric sound ringing out over the others as she portrayed a woman who is both an eager pupil and a reluctant lover: despite her feelings for Aspern, Sonia doesn’t want to betray Juliana. Bass Dean Peterson brought an appealing insouciance to the role of Barelli, the impresario from whom Aspern steals Juliana, then Sonia.  Andrew Lieberman’s set — a crumbling, sparsely decorated parlor in a villa overlooking Lake Como — offered little visual interest, and Hase’s lighting, by turns murky and harsh, did little to enhance the proceedings. But this may have focused more attention on the singers, and Albery elicited strong dramatic performances from his cast; Constance Hoffman’s costumes helped to delineate the characters further.
Jenkins has worked wonders with the Dallas Opera orchestra, drawing coherent, polished performances while expanding the company’s repertory in exciting directions: this is now a sophisticated, versatile ensemble that hasn’t sacrificed any of the sympathy for singers that marked the Rescigno years. Here, Jenkins and his players made a strong case for the merits of Argento’s score, leaving a listener to believe that, if the piece is seldom revived, that’s largely because the source material (unlike that of other recent American operas based on classic literature) has resisted adaptation by Hollywood or the BBC: there’s very little name recognition outside of college English departments. Other companies would be wise to take another look at The Aspern Papers — and they’d be lucky to find a conductor and cast as good as those whom Dallas provided. Photo Karen Almond, Dallas Opera