Boston Midsummer Opera Conductor Susan Davenny Wyner On Rossini's 'Barber Of Seville'
Boston Midsummer Opera returns for its 12th summer with one of the comic wonders of the operatic repertoire: the 17th and most beloved of Gioachino Rossini’s 40 operas, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”) — the story of how the clever barber Figaro helps the delectable Rosina slip out of the clutches of her elderly guardian into the arms of her beloved Lindoro (really the Count Almaviva in various disguises).
The beating heart of Boston Midsummer Opera, for the past 11 years, has been Susan Davenny Wyner, once a celebrated soprano who sang just about everything from Monteverdi to Elliott Carter premieres and now, after a hit-and-run car accident made her unable to sing, a celebrated conductor and music director. Her innate musicality and vivaciousness have given life to a wide range of operas (an even wider range in Ohio, where she is the music director and conductor of both the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Western Reserve).
Some of her choices have been surprising, reviving such neglected but worthy works as Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and, my favorite, two summers ago, Pietro Mascagni’s touching and memorably melodic “L’amico Fritz” (“My Friend Fritz” — a rare opera focusing on lovers who are Jewish), both of these smartly and sensitively staged by director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who is also staging “Barber.”
I’ve been a huge admirer of Wyner for decades and had a few questions for her ahead of this production:
"The Barber of Seville" is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. But a number of BMO’s previous operas have been relatively rare. How did you decide which operas to do? What’s the difference between conducting a score that’s new to you and a more familiar one?
Susan Davenny Wyner: "I love doing less familiar works giving audiences the chance to hear things they don’t know well. I’ve felt at the beginning that by doing less known works we would add to Boston’s cultural scene. A number of things have evolved — space change, audience change. I feel strongly that doing a familiar work does not mean falling willy-nilly into 'habits and traditions' of performance, that we can create a lively, engaging and fresh experience. So much depends on the gifts and insights of specific performers, the creative team involved, not to speak of where we are performing! Music making, opera above all, is a living, breathing art."
What particularly delights you about "The Barber of Seville"?
" 'The Barber' exhibits Rossini in his gayest and most exhilarating mood — it sparkles with wit and fancy. In 1898, the 85-year-old Verdi said of it, 'I cannot help believing that, for abundance of ideas, comic verve and truth of declamation, "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" is the most beautiful opera buffa in existence.' ... For me, the genius of Rossini is that with all of his incredible inventiveness and wit, he probes deeply into these commedia dell’arte characters. We feel the warmth of the love story, the yearning in Rosina, the count’s desire to be loved for himself, not his rank. The old curmudgeon reveals vulnerabilities too. Rossini adored Mozart — we hear and feel that in this piece."
Why should someone who has seen this opera before, maybe even many times, come to this production?
"Performance is not a frozen art — we are constantly discovering new things. Each time is different. As Whitman says in 'November Boughs,' 'The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.' There is always something new and revealing to be found — from tiniest felicities, to shaping large phrases and scenes so we can enter a magic space and lose our sense of time and place, living for what’s happening in the moment. Great music making is alive and quivering with newness and unexpected moments of transformation."
Moving to Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts left you without an orchestra pit. How did you make the new arrangement work?
"I carefully studied the acoustical properties of the theater (which is a speaking theater, not made for music making!). I decided if we built wooden platforms for the orchestra at the back of the playing area it would help project the instruments as a unified, colorful 'voice' (rather than have them sound straggly or as exposed individuals). Best of all, having the orchestra at the back puts the singers directly in contact with the audience — no intermediary in between! I love that part of it and use all my instincts as a conductor to make it work though, secretly, I confess, I love singers so that I hate being behind them all.
"In theater, we all find that 'problems' can spur wonderfully creative ideas. The intimacy this theater provides allows for a deliciously intense interaction between our singing characters and their listeners — they can truly engage! They are not far away, standing on a stage a million miles away. They do not have to shout sing to one another or to the audience. The personal exchanges feel real and alive and in the moment. The audience can read the singers intentions, feel them breathe, see their eyes cloud or twinkle with thought as an idea forms. And to have someone singing roulades, high and low notes, incredibly fast patter with such amazing beauty and skill is truly magic!
Operas are long. Summer is hot. Do you feel you have to abbreviate the operas?
"Luckily we are an in air-conditioned theater -- summer productions were done outdoors in the old days … how did they manage in the old theaters with the heavy costumes and cranky instruments?… Yes I’ve been persuaded that maybe there is something different about an opera on a summer evening. Also I suspect our attention spans have shortened… Any cutting and pruning I do is with a tremendous amount of thought and love for the composer’s intent — it depends often on who the singers are and where we are going with our dramatic arc."
You’re closely related to someone appearing in this production. How does it feel to be working with someone you are so close to?
"Yehudi [Susan Davenny Wyner’s husband, composer Yehudi Wyner], who is a born mimic with a wicked sense of humor, lived in Rome for three years as a young man. All the 'characters' he met on the streets and observed in trattorias captivated him. During our visits with Antonio, we’d be speaking Italian together, when Yehudi would suddenly 'disappear,' stop being himself, and launch into the voice of an Italian character… Next thing I knew Antonio had invited Yehudi to be the old servant Ambrogio in our production. It’s Yehudi’s first acting role since he appeared on Broadway in 1942.
"This is a first for us: We have loved making music together since our early courtship days and have been onstage together in many guises — as a singer I performed with him as my pianist (in many recitals including Carnegie Hall) and with him as a conductor of operas (including productions of “Bohème,” “Marriage of Figaro,” “Pelleas and Melisande”). I, of course, sang many works he composed for me (and also played them as a violinist). Then when life turned upside down and I began conducting, I’ve conducted his music and had the delight of him as concerto soloist (including Mozart’s E-flat concerto for two pianos with André Previn as the other pianist).
"This new role for Yehudi I don’t get to see, alas, because Yehudi will be acting behind my back. I get to enjoy his shenanigans in rehearsals only!"
You’ve been with Boston Midsummer Opera for most of its 12-year history. What have you enjoyed most about BMO?
"The opportunity to work closely with singers as actors and the stage director — and especially for certain productions to be part of the creative production team — how lighting might respond to musical undercurrents and harmonic shapes, etc., etc."
If you need any further convincing about the pleasures of Rossini’s masterpiece, here are some legendary performances of its most famous arias. First, Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” (“Make way for the guy who can do anything,” better known as “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!”). This is an old short film released in 1927, with the image of the wonderful Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca synchronized to his singing voice:
One of the most famous arias for a bass baritone, “La calunia” ("Slander") is also one of the funniest. Don Basilio is Rosina’s singing teacher. In this aria, he tries to convince Don Bartolo, Rosina’s aged guardian who wants to marry Rosina himself, that he can get rid of his rival by starting a terrible rumor.
BMO’s production will be in Italian with supertitles, but here’s how it ends in the terrific translation by actor and author Mo Hanan:
Here's the moral of the story
Smear your way into the glory
That you never knew before.
With his name destroyed by slander
Poison pen and propaganda
There's no chance for the survival
Of your rival any more.
The singer here is matinee idol Ezio Pinza (“Some Enchanted Evening”), who was as skillful a comedian as he was as a dashing leading man:
And here is another great singer — soprano Maria Callas — in a rare comic mode, singing Rosina’s aria “Una Voce Poco Fa” (“A Voice A Little While Ago”). She sings about her love for Lindoro, and about what a good girl she is — obedient, docile, loving, easily guided — but if anyone tries to cross her, she’ll turn into a viper. The Italian word for “but” is “ma” and Callas’ little explosion on “ma” is priceless. It comes about three minutes into this video taken from a live concert performance:
Boston Midsummer Opera is presenting three performances of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, July 25, 27 and 29.