by Walter Simmons
PASATIERI Frau Margot • Lauren Flanigan (Frau Margot); Morgan Smith (Ted Steinert); Patricia Risley (Kara Sondstrom); et al. soloists; Joseph Illick, cond; Fort Worth Opera Orchestra • ALBANY TROY 965/966 (2 CDs; 1:59)
Albany Records continues its commitment to the music of Thomas Pasatieri with this new release of his recent opera Frau Margot. To summarize what I have recounted in previous reviews, Pasatieri had at one time achieved considerable success with both singers and audiences through more than a dozen operas, neo-romantic in style, composed between 1965 and 1980, when he was in his 20s and early 30s. However, this was a period when the critical climate was notoriously hostile to operas that built upon the musical legacy of Puccini, rather than revolting against it. Pasatieri’s brazen disregard of the Zeitgeist, compounded by his remarkable fecundity and the young age at which he attracted such high-profile attention, prompted considerable abuse at the hands of critics and others in the operatic world. Disillusioned and embittered by such a discouraging environment, he moved to California, and spent the next twenty years pursuing a lucrative career as an orchestrator of filmscores. (The Shawshank Redemption, The Little Mermaid, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Road to Perdition are just a few of the scores that he orchestrated.) Then, in 2002, around the time when his 1972 opera The Seagull was revived successfully by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater (also released on an Albany CD set, reviewed in Fanfare 27:2), the then-57-year-old composer decided to return to New York and resume his career as an opera composer.
The first fruit of this renascence is Frau Margot, Pasatieri’s 18th opera. (No. 19, The Hotel Casablanca, has already been produced, just this past August, in San Francisco.) Frau Margothad its premiere in June, 2007, by the Fort Worth Opera. This new release, taken from that production, is now available, a mere three months later.
The libretto, by Frank Corsaro, is fascinating in its own right, and is almost irresistible as an operatic subject. It is based on a supposedly true story told to Corsaro by Leonard Bernstein, and 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 consultations with her late husband’s spirit via séances. However, it is believed that Helene suspected that Berg modeled the character of Lulu on his own mistress, and that Helene’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.
Corsaro (who was also the stage director of the premiere) and Pasatieri wisely decided to highlight the film noir implications of the overall work. Hence Pasatieri’s neo-romantic language, which may be said to generally resemble the musical style associated with film noir, can be perceived as appropriate to the dramatic style of the work, rather than as a reactionary language, out of touch with today’s musical world. Of course, this approach is only viable now that sufficient time has passed for the film noir aesthetic to have achieved legitimacy, rather than prompting disparagement as a relic of yesterday’s fashions.
From a distance, the musical style of Pasatieri’s operas places them among the works of his teacher Giannini, Barber, Menotti, Hoiby, Flagello, Floyd, and others. But with greater familiarity, one becomes aware of Pasatieri’s own individual voice—a voice well suited to the nuanced expression of intimate feelings. Although there aren’t many stand-alone arias and ensembles that draw purely musical attention in this work, as there are in some of his earlier operas, as compensation the narrative aspect moves forward swiftly and continuously, riveting the audience’s attention throughout, to which I can attest, having attended the Fort Worth production myself. By the time it was over, I wouldn’t have minded a repeat performance right then and there!
The recording only confirms my initial impression of the work. The singers in the leading roles are all quite good, while the orchestra provides the requisite richness. However, because of the opera’s true musicodramatic structure, this is not a recording to play in the background, while one awaits the “big moments.” It is best appreciated with libretto in hand; although the diction of the singers is perfectly fine, one needs to follow the dialogue and action until one has sufficiently internalized them. My prediction is that those listeners with a taste for this genre will find themselves fully absorbed in short order.
In previous reviews I have complained that Pasatieri’s representation on recordings does not begin to do him justice. While I would still like to see more attention devoted to Black Widowand Washington Square, which remain my own favorites among his work, Frau Margot is an opera that certainly does justice to his reputation. Those operaphiles who have yet to explore Pasatieri’s output are urged to start with this one.