Jake Heggie's new opera, Great Scott, with libretto by Terrence McNally, opened this past week in Dallas. Now, I always cringe when I see McNally's name on the marquee, because I still have not forgiven him the gross distortions of Master Class. Yes, I know that art isn't biography, but Callas was a smart, professional, and insightful teacher, not an abusive, self-centered monster - the audio of the classes has circulate for years, so you can hear for yourself.
The reviews are in, or most of them, and whaddaya know, the Dallas critics are a lot happier than the out-of-towners.
- Olin Chism, Star-Telegram. He describes Heggie's style as "lyrical and atmospheric while respectful of tradition." Note that this reviewer has not cottoned on to the fact that Joyce DiDonato is a mezzo-soprano...and he says little about the quality of the singing and staging.
- Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News. Describes Heggie's music as "thoroughly tonal and often tuneful."
- Heidi Walseon, WSJ. Her one-sentence summary: "A clumsy, overstuffed cross between a backstage comedy and a show-off exercise in compositional appropriation, wrapped in Mr. Heggie’s trademark singer-friendly but treacly tunes, Great Scott seems designed to make audiences feel smug about being insiders."
- Joshua Kosman, SF Chron. Says about what Waleson says, only a lot funnier. On Heggie, "There are stretches of elegantly alluring music, and others where Heggie’s writing turns derivative or mundane."
- David Gregson, Opera West. Note the presence of local favorite Philip Skinner in two roles. Gregson liked it, and the performances, but: "It often seems like a collection of clever scenes, many of them far too cute, all strung together without a really strong thread."
I've got a tweet out to certain persons in NYC asking which of them has a ticket to Dallas. After reading these reviews, I suspect that I'd be in the Waleson/Kosman camp, with the tone of my review depending on the mood of the day.
The opera sounds like it's at least partly lightweight, meaningless fun. There's room for a good comedy in modern opera, or ought to be (I keep touting Lysistrata, which has a serious side, and hoping it will get performed hereabouts), but this sounds as if it's got a lot of problems.
Ideally, if it gets performed elsewhere, Heggie and McNally will tighten it up. Everybody complains about the length, which isn't so much about the actual length as about an overly busy plot where some plot strands have no justification. This was also an issue in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, speaking of Mark Adamo, and, to a much lesser extent, Two Women.
Among the new operas I've seen in the last 20 years, the best libretto was that of Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, in which J.D. McClatchy turned a 300-page monolog of a novel into a taut and dramatic libretto. Going back further, to see how it's done, ahem, Tosca or Rigoletto for the swift gallop, or La Boheme, for a more discursive and episodic libretto where you still can't reasonably cut anything.
There's a reason I'm pointing to those older libretti: Puccini and Verdi knew what would work and hammered their librettists mercilessly to get what they wanted. Current composers might consider doing exactly the same thing.