by Walter Simmons
Pasatieri: Frau Margot (premiere)
American Record Guide, 2007
The world premiere of Frau Margot, a new opera by American composer Thomas Pasatieri, was a most auspicious way to inaugurate Fort Worth Opera’s new concept: Instead of spreading its full season throughout the year, the 60-year-old opera company condensed its schedule into a 3-week “Festival” that ran from mid-May through early June, 2007.
But Frau Margot was more than just a premiere: It also marked the return (after a 20-year hiatus) of a composer who had completed some 17 operas by his mid-30s, but who then all but disappeared from the scene. All of his operas had been performed—some numerous times. But while their lush, melodious, neo-romantic style, and their use of subjects drawn from compelling literary works (such as Henry James’s Washington Square and Chekhov’s The Seagull), endeared them to both singers and audiences, critics were not so kind. The period when Pasatieri was at his most prolific—from the mid 1960s through the early 1980s—was notoriously inhospitable to new works that embraced traditional musical values. Critics, as well as other opera composers, were enraged by the success of this “kid,” still in his 20s, who dared to flout the imperatives of modernism; they vilified Pasatieri with a level of invective that challenged the parameters of basic decency.
So during the mid 1980s, Pasatieri moved to Los Angeles, and developed a lucrative career as an orchestrator of filmscores. (The Shawshank Redemption, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Little Mermaid are just a few of the films that bear his handiwork.) Then, in 2002, he attended the New York revival of an opera he had composed 30 years earlier. But now the critical climate was much more receptive to the neo-romantic style, and the work was received with considerable favor. Enormously gratified by the reception, Pasatieri, then approaching 60, decided to relocate to New York and resume his career as an opera composer. Frau Margot marks this return.
Frau Margot is a fictional drama based on a supposedly true story, told to librettist Frank Corsaro by Leonard Bernstein, which involves Alban Berg’s incomplete opera Lulu. As the story goes, after Berg’s death, many composers had approached his widow Helene, requesting permission to complete the work, but all were turned down after Helene’s supposed consultation with her late husband’s spirit via séances. However, it is believed that Helene suspected that Lulu was modeled on Berg’s mistress, and that the former’s refusal to allow the work to be completed was tied to her refusal to accept the reality of her husband’s betrayal.
Corsaro adapted this strange account into a fictional libretto about a young composer-conductor, Ted Steinert, who has traveled to Amsterdam to request permission from Margot Kunstler to complete the final opera of her late husband, the great composer Erich Kunstler. As the work unfolds, Steinert falls in love with Frau Margot’s close friend and companion Kara. In the process Margot begins to fuse Steinert with her husband in her mind, Kara is revealed as having been Kunstler’s own mistress, as well as Steinert’s. Drug addiction, murder, hints of lesbianism, and insanity all play a role in intensifying the impact of the moody, darkly-textured work.
Pasatieri’s score bears his unmistakable fingerprints from the moment the opera begins: Long, tonally-shifting, open-ended melodic lines weave in and out of the orchestral fabric, at times seething, at others soaring, continuously unfolding so as to keep both dramatic and musical energy moving forward. As director as well as librettist, Corsaro cast the work in the manner of film noir, set in the late 1930s with backdrops largely in black-and-white depicting images clearly evocative of that genre. This is a brilliant stroke, creating a natural counterpart to the composer’s musical style, which is well suited to the subject matter, rather than the vestige of an outdated aesthetic. In fact, the recent revival and “re-making” of so many film noir classics testifies to the enduring appeal of the genre, while the similarly classic status accorded filmscores by Miklos Rozsa and others points to musical values that transcend their originally subordinate functions. However, despite the immediacy of the music, it is subtler and more complex than one may realize: One does not leave the theater humming the tunes. But this is not to suggest that there are no musical highpoints. The opening section of Act II for example, featuring Ted and Kara, is simply gorgeous. But upon initial exposure, the music largely teases the ear into wanting more. When the final curtain descended, this listener would have been happy to hear the whole thing all over again.
As suggested, the staging was excellent in capturing the mood of the opera. However, somewhat curious was the near-constant presence of Arnold Schoenberg’s famous painting of Alban Berg, as well as a late photo portrait, as backdrops to the action. This seemed at odds with its presentation as a work of fiction. The performance itself was excellent. The opera was created with Lauren Flanigan in mind as Frau Margot, and she projected the character’s gradual descent into insanity with great power. As Kara Sondstrom, mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley was as convincing visually as the alluring mistress as she was musically, while baritone Morgan Smith was excellent as Ted Steinert, as he sunk helplessly into the maelstrom created by the two women. The supporting roles were mostly adequate to their tasks as well, although Allan Glassman, in the role of Ted’s publisher, suffered a few unfortunate vocal lapses. The orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Illick, provided richly sonorous support. One hopes that this successful premiere will prompt further productions elsewhere, as well as revivals of some of Pasatieri’s other operas, many of which haven’t been seen in years.