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Home Reviews The Arts Dominick Argento’s ‘The Aspern Papers’ marks 25th anniversary of TDO debut

Dominick Argento’s ‘The Aspern Papers’ marks 25th anniversary of TDO debut

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If you love opera – and I mean really, really love beautiful music sung by glorious voices – you have two more chances to see it in its purest form.

    Dominick Argento’s “The Aspern Papers” is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary of its debut at The Dallas Opera.
    The new production of this atmospheric opera, based on an 1888 novella by acclaimed author Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, The Bostonians, The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove) is conducted by Dallas Opera Music Director Graeme Jenkins in his final TDO appearances before he assumes the status “emeritus.”  
    Forget the grand stages of “Aida,” “La Traviata”?or “Turandot.”
    This production relies on utter simplicity and near-perfect singing by a dream cast that includes Susan Graham, Texas’ own mezzo-soprano sweetheart, in her TDO debut.   
    “While the 25th Anniversary seemed like the right time to consider a possible revival of what many feel is Dominick Argento’s greatest work,” explains Dallas Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, “the decisive factor was the availability of a phenomenal cast of internationally acclaimed singers who could rival the incredible group of artists who originated these roles in 1988.  We knew that if we didn’t seize this opportunity now, it might very well take another 25 years to assemble such a glorious group of singers to bring these roles back to life.”
    This revival stars “the peerless American mezzo” (New York Observer) Susan Graham in her long-awaited Dallas Opera debut as Tina.   
    Born in New Mexico and raised in Midland, Miss Graham studied at Texas Tech University and the Manhattan School of Music. She was Musical America’s “Vocalist of the Year” for 2004 and, two years later, her hometown proclaimed September 5 to be “Susan Graham Day” in perpetuity.          

Recently, she made the cover of Opera News (“Hail to the Queen!” December 2012, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild) reinforcing her current status as operatic superstar and “national treasure” (Audiophile Audition).
    Miss Graham created the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” for San Francisco Opera, and originated roles in two recent Metropolitan Opera world premieres: Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” and “The Great Gatsby” by John Harbison.
    Dubbed “America’s favorite mezzo” by Gramophone magazine, Graham remains one of the most beloved artists of our time.
    Canadian-born French soprano Alexandra Deshorties sings the role of the possessive opera diva, Juliana Bordereau, and renowned American baritone Nathan Gunn portrays the Lodger.
    Deshorties was raised in Marseilles, France. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions, she earned a spot in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and made her Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 24 as the High Priestess in “Aida.”
    Critically acclaimed American baritone Nathan Gunn most recently mesmerized TDO patrons in the world premiere of “A Question of Light,” a 2011 song cycle by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer.  
    “The Aspern Papers” tells the story of a former opera diva, now living as a recluse with her niece in a decaying villa on Lake Como, Italy, in the late 19th century.  They are visited by a mysterious American writer who wants to rent a room.  
    In truth, he is interested in the opera singer’s previous affair with a renowned composer, Aspern, and Apern’s final work, an opera long-presumed to have been destroyed.  
    Does the manuscript still exist?  Is it truly a missing masterpiece?  And is the lodger prepared to pay any price to obtain it?
    Don’t look for soliders, city crowds or a Greek chorus in this performance. They are not needed.  
    What drives this time-traveling plot from 1835 to 1885 over and over again are the marvelous performances by the cast. Each voice finds its perfect place, supporting or soaring, seemingly at will.
    Deshorties provides plenty of heat as a woman scorned and driven over the edge by her lover’s betrayal. Her mad scene rivals any in operatic reportoire.
    Gunn’s take on the stranger was perfectly nuanced and included both sides of the character – opportunist and sad observer to the unfolding tragedy of his idol, the composer Aspern.
    Graham squeezes every inch of loneliness and melancholy from  Tina, the aging spinster forced to barter with the stranger for his affection. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when the handsome American arrives, Tina sees an escape route from her dreary life in a ruined mansion.
    Try to make time to attend the pre-opera talks in Hamon Hall (to the right of the front doors) one hour prior to curtain. In an opera this complicated, you’ll be happy you did.
    Even though “The Aspern Papers” is sung in English, subtitles are used.

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There are two chances left to see the opera, Saturday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m. in the Winspear Opera House. Single tickets start at $19. Call 214-443-1000 or log on to www.dallasopera.org.

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Click here to view a clip of Graham and Gunn in "The Aspern Papers."

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