“I confess to wincing when I have heard Great Scott described as a ‘comic’ opera.” These are the words of playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto for the new opera by Jake Heggie. The Dallas Opera premiered it on Friday night in the Winspear Opera House.
The words are puzzling, because McNally’s libretto is full of witty lines, the source of much of the frequent laughter of the evening.
Not only that, but the sly tone of much of the work, including the music that Heggie wrote for McNally’s words, is far from solemn. Perhaps McNally was anticipating the possibility that the comic element would overwhelm the serious. A real possibility, it turned out.
It turns out that Heggie is a master of musical mimicry.
Great Scott is an opera-within-an-opera. The “Scott” of the title is Arden Scott, a soprano who has hit the big time. She’s back in her hometown to try to save the struggling local opera company by starring in the premiere of a long lost but recently found bel canto masterpiece.
There are complications. The premiere will coincide with the Super Bowl, in which the hometown Grizzlies are competing. Rehearsals are not going well. And the reappearance of Arden’s boyfriend from years past stirs new emotions.
The first clue that satire will be at work in Great Scott comes in the overture. Overtures are kind of old-timey nowadays, but what makes this one special is that it contains a Rossini crescendo — in the middle of a 21st century work!
What this means, it soon turns out, is that Great Scott will contain two types of music: Heggie’s usual style — lyrical and atmospheric while respectful of tradition — and pseudo bel canto. The latter will come into play when the rediscovered opera, titled Rosa Dolorosa, by one “Vittorio Bazzetti,” is rehearsed or performed.
Much of it seems absurd (and hilarious), but then bel canto traditions seem absurd to many modern listeners who still enjoy them.
It turns out that Heggie is a master of musical mimicry. There are plenty of times, when Rosa Dolorosa is the focus of the work, when Heggie’s music sounds bel canto. McNally joins in the fun by writing a libretto that could be from 1835. Even the choreographer and set and costume designer are onto the game.
Some examples of the tomfoolery: a mad scene in which the heroine prepares to throw herself into the mouth of Vesuvius, a rehearsal scene in which a god finds himself dangling in midair after an equipment malfunction, a “Fountain Dance” so farcical even Donizetti would have rejected it.
I’m assuming that all of this is a fond tribute to an ancient style. Much of it seems absurd (and hilarious), but then bel canto traditions seem absurd to many modern listeners who still enjoy them.
Modern times are not spared. One of the biggest laughs of the evening came when the Act 2 curtain rose to reveal a giant American flag in a football stadium, fronted by a soprano singing a much operafied version of the Star-Spangled Banner. Heggie’s arrangement is a hoot as he pokes fun at a modern American tradition.
In general, the scenes set in the present are not as vivid, though they contain much music exhibiting Heggie’s ingratiating style and are well performed by a top-notch cast headed by soprano Joyce DiDonato as the returning diva, baritone Nathan Gunn as her old boyfriend, and mezzo Frederica von Stade as a local opera booster.
One flaw is that Great Scott simply goes on too long (more than three hours).
One flaw is that Great Scott simply goes on too long (more than three hours). Some trimming would be nice — a word game sung by the cast in Act 1 might be a good place to start. Also, there are several places where the opera seems to be ending but then cranks up again.
▪ Wednesday, Saturday and Nov. 15
▪ Winspear Opera House, Dallas
▪ 214-443-1000; www.dallasopera.org