Dominick Argento's haunting opera The Aspern Papers takes place in a crumbling villa on the banks of a remote Italian lake. It's the kind of eerie setting where the past is present and old secrets hang heavy. The stunning, sparse sets of The Dallas Opera's current production are perfect for this text-heavy tale and, combined with exceptional singing, make for a great two hours of operatic theater.
The Aspern Papers is based on Henry James' novella of the same name, which explains why this inter-relational drama teases out themes of legacy, ego, love and betrayal so poignantly. Argento changes some basic elements of James' plot, making this a somewhat self-indulgent opera about opera. The composer also wrote the English-language libretto (the opera's text) himself. It's a bit abrupt, but nevertheless poetic at all the right moments.
At the center of the story is Juliana Bordereau, a once-great diva of the opera stage who we meet in the opening bars of the opera as a bent, elderly woman shrouded in black silk and lace. As the curtains lift on Andrew Lieberman's beautifully bare set, Juliana sings a mournful song of longing ("Snow and cypress, glacier and leaf ...") that instantly sets the tone for the opera.
Once the lover and muse of a composer named Aspern, Juliana holds secrets about Aspern's death and the whereabouts of a missing opera he was rumored to have written before he died. She is living out her final days undisturbed in her decaying villa with her sole companion, a dowdy and devoted niece named Tina, when their solitude is interrupted by a stranger looking for a room to rent. Juliana is right to be wary of The Lodger (sung elegantly by Nathan Gunn). He is an Aspern scholar and is intent on manipulating the two women into sharing Juliana's secrets.
The story unfolds unusually, bouncing back and forth between 1895 and 1835, when Juliana was young and Aspern was alive. It helps to have an idea of the plot going into the opera to avoid confusion, but TDO's production handles the shifting time periods elegantly. As Juliana, soprano Alexandra Deshorties has the biggest dramatic challenges, acting both as the old dying woman and the young, jilted diva. She is most convincing and powerful as the older woman and proves this by holding her own in scenes with Susan Graham (Tina). Graham's solos are the highlight of the performance, with nuanced emotion and a powerful, rich tone.
The young Aspern, sung by Joseph Kaiser, is perhaps the most seductive character, which might explain how he managed to charm not one but two divas into his bed. His song of the two sirens is captivatingly beautiful, a welcome melodic reprieve in a recitative-heavy opera.
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While its modern tones and meandering melodies may take some audience members aback at first, this opera is one of the best productions TDO has put on inside the Winspear Opera House. The space, the set, the cast and the music all come together to create something that feels fresh and new. Opera in Dallas (and in general) could use more of that.
Outgoing TDO music director Graeme Jenkins did a superb job conducting the orchestra through this complex and meandering score, although they continue to struggle with balance issues in this hall. The chorus, prepared by Alexander Rom is out of sight but not out of mind. While they are offstage for the entire production, their atmospheric sounds are a gorgeous accompaniment to the singers on stage, acting almost like an orchestral instrument.
The Aspern Papers is not new. It had its premier 25 years ago with TDO at the Music Hall at Fair Park. This production not only marks that anniversary, but gives the world a chance to hear this fascinating opera again.
Tickets and information available on TDO's website.