by Walter Simmons
PASATIERI: Before Breakfast. Lady Macbeth • Lauren Flanigan (sop); Joseph Illick, cond; (pn); Voices of Change Chamber Ens • ALBANY TROY 1083 (54:00)
Recent releases suggest that Albany Records has embarked on a project to release the operas of Thomas Pasatieri, not that this goal has been stated explicitly, as far as I am aware. Two years ago they released Frau Margot, his 18th opera, written after a hiatus from the medium that had lasted two decades. That release was reviewed favorably by Colin Clarke and by me in Fanfare31:3. Last year they issued the composer’s next opera, the uncharacteristically Menottian Hotel Casablanca, an entertaining bit of fluff, billed as Pasatieri’s “first full-length comedy” (although it is only about an hour and a quarter in duration). The excellently performed and remarkably well-recorded release of this opera (one can actually follow the text by listening), based on a farce by Feydeau, was praised highly by Henry Fogel in Fanfare 31:6 (and by all the other critics whose comments on the work I’ve encountered). La Divina, The Seagull, and Signor Deluso have also been released by Albany during the past decade. My own favorites, Black Widow and Washington Square, have yet to appear, and I’m holding my breath.
Pasatieri, now in his early 60s, is arguably the foremost living exponent of the genre that has been called “American Verismo,” or, perhaps less kindly, “the Arthur Avenue school of composition” (an appellation that may be meaningful only to New Yorkers). In any case, it is an unjustly disparaged genre that seems only now to be finding a respectful, receptive, and comprehending audience.
This review addresses the latest release, which was also discussed by Ronald Grames in Fanfare32:5. Pasatieri’s 15th opera, Before Breakfast was originally composed in 1977 for Beverly Sills, who ultimately retired before she had the opportunity to perform it. However, subsequently, as the director of the New York City Opera, she presented it as part of a triple bill with two very different operas by very different composers. Having been present at the 1980 premiere, which featured soprano Marilyn Zschau, I can report that it made a rather poor impression, for reasons I no longer recall, although this seemed to be the general audience reaction. However, in 2003 the composer re-orchestrated the work and revised it for Lauren Flanigan, who is not only one of Pasatieri’s current leading exponents, but a brilliant soprano who has concentrated much of her efforts on recent, lesser-known operas. The libretto was written by Frank Corsaro, who based it on one of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest (1916) plays—little more than a sketch, really. While she is preparing breakfast for her presumably lazy, good-for-nothing husband (who is offstage and silent throughout), his embittered wife carries on about him and his shortcomings, as well as her own regrets and disillusionment. At the end she discovers that he has killed himself during her monologue. As my colleague pointed out in his review, it is really the music that breathes life into this rather trite conceit. The 35-minute score is based on an exquisitely haunting little waltz that is not heard in its entirety until almost halfway into the work, when it is played on the phonograph within the dramatic context. Having worked its way into the opera’s entire musical texture, virtually from the first note, it creates a sense of unity and pathos that elevates the work beyond its source. (This waltz is too lovely to remain merely a component of the opera, and should be published independently as a little piano piece. It would be irresistible as an encore.)
Lady Macbeth, composed in 2008, is the most recent of three monologous character studies that Pasatieri has based on Shakespearean heroines. This work was also written for Lauren Flanigan, who gave the premiere in Dallas later that same year. I did not find this work to be quite as satisfying as did Grames. Despite the far removed time and place, Pasatieri does not alter his musical language one iota from its neo-romantic norm, which is fine, and quite customary in adaptations of Shakespeare. But I’m not sure that the expressive character of the music quite fits the emotional and dramatic content of the text. The work is certainly a tour-de-force for the soprano, and even Flanigan shows some strain. Perhaps the piece would gain in stature if orchestrated. Joseph Illick, conductor of the Fort Worth Opera (which introduced Frau Margot) and the new music ensemble Voices of Change, fulfills his role as pianist adequately.