Opera

Philadelphia's 'Cyrano': Actually, They Do Make 'Em Like That Anymore

David DiChiera, in Philadelphia before Wednesday's performance of "Cyrano," the 72-year-old's first full-length opera.
David DiChiera, in Philadelphia before Wednesday's performance of "Cyrano," the 72-year-old's first full-length opera. (By Jim Graham For The Washington Post)

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- It's a story of love deferred, love lived by proxy, love finally realized late in life. It's the story of "Cyrano de Bergerac," of the prominently proboscised hero of Edmond Rostand's late-19th-century play, doomed to unrequited love.

But it is also the story of composer David DiChiera and his opera, "Cyrano." For the story of "Cyrano" -- which had its world premiere in Detroit in October and is now at the Opera Company of Philadelphia through Sunday -- is itself an old-fashioned tale of love and late flowering.

DiChiera is 72, and "Cyrano" is his first full-length opera. But he has spent his whole life loving opera and finding ways to get closer to it -- as a student, as a musicologist and professor specializing in 18th-century composers, and as an administrator.

DiChiera is best known as the founder of Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, which he created out of whole cloth in 1971. He also founded Opera Pacific in California and served as president of the national service organization Opera America. When he took over at Opera America in 1979, almost nobody was writing new opera; and he created a grant program for new work, still in existence today, that has helped fuel a veritable American opera renaissance.

You could say that he has spent his whole career creating the requisite preconditions to write an opera of his own.

Opera is, fundamentally, an old-fashioned art. And DiChiera is an old-fashioned composer. Debonair, with crisp, white hair and a clipped mustache, he repeatedly evokes the description of "gentleman" from people who might normally not use the term -- such as Marc Scorca, his current successor at Opera America, who calls him both "a pioneer and a dynamic visionary," as well as "beloved in our field." What DiChiera loves about opera is its potential for verbal and melodic expression -- at least that can be inferred from "Cyrano," with its ravishing harmonies, arching ensembles, full-blooded arias.

In the late 1950s and '60s, when DiChiera was studying composition in an environment dominated by serialism and experiments in electronic music, this kind of music was not just old-fashioned but downright reactionary.

"I would bring in my heartfelt music," he said with a slight smile, sitting in a Philadelphia restaurant before Wednesday's "Cyrano" performance, "and my teachers, people like Lukas Foss, would say, 'Well, yes, but you could do this, and that. . . . ' They were trying to make it more like what everybody else was doing."

Composing, it seemed, was to remain a private pleasure. DiChiera expressed his love of opera in other ways, like creating a new 2,700-seat home for Michigan Opera Theatre in the 1990s. But after that project was completed, his dream of writing an opera, in a climate more open to new opera and to a variety of musical styles, seemed within reach.

Philosophically, DiChiera is not opposed to atonality; he says he might well use it in another opera about a different subject. "Opera is theater," he says -- whatever musical style contributes to the expression of the drama is there for a composer to use. But on the evidence of "Cyrano," there is no question that he loves the rich, florid harmonic language of Massenet or late Puccini. DiChiera did not orchestrate the piece himself -- short on time, he worked with the conductor and orchestrator Mark Flint -- but the musical density of the score is the result of his conception.

"Cyrano" is a new opera that feels old. What is interesting is that it does not feel "neo": the music is melodious and tonal, but generally involving; evocative of the past, but not openly derivative. Nor is it easy. On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, the orchestra under Stefan Lano audibly struggled in places (and particularly in the brass) with its evocative solo lines.

The opera gives all its performers, and particularly its singers, a tremendous amount to do. By the third performance Wednesday, fatigue was audible in a gravelly quality from the baritone Marian Pop in the title role, although he rallied in the later acts; and in the loss of color and body from the higher register of the soprano Evelyn Pollock, visually well cast as the lovely Roxane. Stephen Costello -- a tenor about whom there is already much buzz in the opera world -- gave indication of promise as Christian, the handsome but stupid lover who enlists Cyrano's poetic aid to win Roxane's love. Unlike many operas, this one started slow and got better: the balcony scene in Act 2, studded with harp runs and the stars of flute tones, was a highlight, and the final scene an appropriate climax.

DiChiera's late-blooming composing career raises the question of what it means to love opera. Everyone in the field gives much lip service to the idea that we want new operas. Yet opera as it is appreciated by most of its fans is not a new art; those who define themselves as opera-lovers are more likely to embrace Puccini and Wagner than the most prolific American opera composers of our time, John Adams ("Nixon in China," "Doctor Atomic") and Philip Glass (who has written more than 20 operas, most recently "Appomattox"). Where new music is experimental and cutting-edge, opera is thought of as big and buxom and romantic, and the meeting of the two is often an uneasy fusion, in terms of its artistic value and in terms of its resonance with the public.

DiChiera is notable in that his approach is completely without pose. He has written an opera that fits any opera-lover's definition, and he is only minimally concerned that it is not anyone's definition of progressive. Its conservatism might make it a difficult work to champion. But it is utterly sincere, and affecting: a love story that comes from the heart.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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