TAMPA — The only scheduled performance of Lady Swanwhite opened Saturday to high hopes and uncertain expectations. A small orchestra painted a brooding spell on the set, a medieval castle.
Composer Anton Coppola watched from a box just off stage right at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, next to his nephew and muse, film director Francis Ford Coppola, who suggested his uncle write an opera around an August Strindberg play. The elder Coppola, Opera Tampa’s former artistic director, turns 102 next month.
He reveres Puccini, who died when Coppola was 7. But this is no throwback opera. If anything, he has expanded on the Italian composer’s verismo style, with featured gritty plot lines set in a then-present day, counterintuitive harmonies and even outright dissonances. While Lady Swanwhite is set in the past, its style belongs squarely in the 21st century, which gives composers free rein. Productions can be minimalist (Phaedra, 2011) or more extravagant (Anna Nicole, 2008), borrow from baroque or jazz or rock music or use multiple styles within the same opera.
For audiences used to the old favorites (or “warhorses,” a sometimes condescending term applied to the likes of Carmen or La Traviata or just about any opera you are likely to actually see), contemporary opera often skips what traditional operas considered the main course — mere arias, duets, quartets and choruses. Lady Swanwhite favors this more Spartan approach, and the result can be jarring.
There is at least one aria by Swanwhite early on, played with childlike exuberance by Maria Brea in the titular role. But the overall recititative style, with its leaps and drops following the contours of ordinary speech, makes even these moments difficult to recognize. This format takes some getting used to. At times it isn’t even clear vocal melodies were meant to reflect the emotions being conveyed by performers on the stage; as opposed to being chosen almost at random to set a script to music.
A sense of audience bewilderment (which Coppola accurately predicted in an interview last week) likely does not apply to much of the opera, especially in key scenes in which the music conveys poignancy. Moreover, an orchestral score conducted by Jorge Parodi tells the entire story with eloquence and wit, beginning with a flute solo reflecting Swanwhite’s fascination with birds and culminating with the funeral dirge for a drowned prince.
Midway through, an intermezzo between the two acts bespoke brooding forces at work (so much so that one vocal coach in the audience heard a nod to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather). Meanwhile, a dramatic and universal story — arguably the real main course — unfolds with all of the moods intended in the play, which Strindberg debuted in 1901 while recovering from a suicidal depression.
In the story, Swanwhite learns from her father, a duke (baritone Mark Walters), that she has been conscripted to marry a king. To prepare her, he hires a handsome prince to teach her to learn courtly lifestyle and etiquette. The pair never gets around to any of that, falling instantly in love. Both are still grieving the loss of their mothers, completing their bond. Tenor Thomas Massey showed a little thinness toward the top of his range, but also power and an expressive ability. A couple of brief duets with Brea, herself a versatile soprano, helped cement them as a couple. A longer, stunning duet between soprano Kristi Beinhauer and mezzo-soprano Jordan Blair Campbell as the ghosts of Swanwhite’s and the prince’s mothers opens the second act. It is the show’s most musically complete moment.
This romance does not at all suit the designs of the duke’s wife, known only as the Stepmother, who would rather the prince marry her daughter, who probably doesn’t even exist. Mezzo-soprano Jessica Best gives the show’s best performance as the stepmother, who spend most of the play terrorizing Swanwhite and her servants. In her role, those unexpected melodic leaps made sense, and her paranoia and grief over a long-ago death dominate the stage.
When her plans go awry, she accuses Swanwhite of losing her virginity. The duke, discovering that the allegation is false, threatens to have his wife executed until Swanwhite intervenes on her behalf. This unexpected mercy changes the stepmother’s heart, but not in time to save the prince, who has drowned trying to escape her wrath. Can Swanwhite’s love breathe life back into the prince? She puts his lifeless hand to her heart.
In the play, the move jumpstarts the prince’s heart. Coppola, ever the contrarian, decided to withhold that satisfaction from the audience, leaving it an open question. Maybe that’s because for him, it doesn’t matter whether love actually triumphs over literal death. Only belief matters, and she believes.
Coppola walked out to face the cheering audience, this time ditching his walker for a cane. After first acknowledging the orchestra and everyone else he could think of, he finally took a bow, then waved and walked offstage.