Monday, October 31, 2005

The art and craft of program note writing

On Sunday I attended a performance of the one-act operas Il Tabarro (Giacomo Puccini) and Cavalleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni) performed by the Washington Concert Opera, conducted by Antony Walker. Concert opera is an odd duck, because you get half of the action (luckily for half the price). You get the orchestra, the chorus, the soloists, even the supertitles; but you don't get the costumes, staging, backdrops, or any substantial non-vocal dramatization. That said, the performance was spectacular. The soloists, the orchestra, and the chorus all sounded great.

Il Tabarro is a wonderfully blood-curdling story--perfect for Halloween! The story moves along at a clip and it's easy to get a sense of what's happening. Cavalleria Rusticana is set in an Italian piazza. It relies more on the tension of the scene, which was difficult to convey with just the music. There were some wonderful performances by the soloists--my favorites were the mezzo-soprano(Frugola/Tabarro and Mamma Lucia/Cavalleria), the tenor Stephen O'Mara who played Turiddu (in Cavalleria) and Luigi (in Tabarro and got offed twice) and Elizabeth Bishop (Santuzza/Cavalleria) who has such a sumptous voice. Baritone Annooshah Golesorkhi performed his paternal roles in a stentorial fashion; singing with a solid and inspiring voice. O'Mara had more material though, and listening to him sing was a delight.

My favorite moment of the night? The Easter hymn "Regina Coeli...Innegiamo Signor" from Cavalleria Rusticana. It's got to be one of the grandest moments in all of Italian grand opera.

I'll post a link to the Washingotn Post review of the production tomorrow.

I wrote the program notes for the show. Throughout the performance I was constantly asking myself if the synopsis I had provided was giving the audience enough background. Tabarro especially was such a hard story to summarize. Some people go to operas without any preparation or knowledge of the book, while others (like myself) think it's helpful to at least know the story. As a program annotator, I think of it as my duty to give audience members a sense of what they can expect (in the synopsis), and to give a brief background about the history of the piece and its prior reception. I think program notes are always a snapshot of any research that's been done on the operas, and should be easily digestable by an audience. Moreover, program notes should prepare an audience for the show, ask meaningful questions, and inspire a greater curiosity about the artform. Now...onto writing notes for a Christmas choral concert.


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