Continuing to grow, the Princeton Festival has assembled 18 performances for 2010 and chosen a double centerpiece for the season. The two starring vehicles are George Frideric Handel’s “Ariodante,” and “The Threepenny Opera” of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. The cornucopia includes a choral workshop and performance, chamber music, jazz, organ music, and two competitions for young musicians. New this year is a competition for violinists in the 15 to 24 age bracket, which takes its place alongside the piano competition for performers between the ages of six and 24, now in its third year.
A series of lectures and films related to the festival held at Princeton Public Library, Lawrence Library, and West Windsor Library began on May 23 and continues throughout the festival. The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra and Princeton Pro Musica open the season on Saturday, June 5, with a joint concert celebrating the orchestra’s 50th anniversary.
The Handel and Weill/Brecht works together signal a split in British taste for entertainment almost two centuries ago; the split is still with us. Handel’s 40 Italian operas were a must-see item in London in the 1720s and 1730s. His “Ariodante,” which premiered in 1735 in the then brand-new Covent Garden Theater, came at the height of his success as the composer of elegant operas. Handel stopped writing opera in 1741 and turned to oratorio, when it became clear that his aristocratic style of musical entertainment had given way to the more popularly-based ballad opera.
John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” which had an unprecedentedly long run in London in 1728, was the first of the new genre and was performed every year for the rest of the 18th century. The Gay work set the pattern for Gilbert and Sullivan’s 19th century entertainments. Its long reach extended to the 20th century, when its direct descendant appeared in Berlin in 1928, two centuries after the 1728 premiere as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera.”
Weill/Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” plays for seven evenings at the Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street beginning Saturday, June 12, and for two matinees on Saturday and Sunday, June 19 and 20. Handel’s “Ariodante” shows at McCarter on Saturday, June 19, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 27 at 3 p.m.
David Kellett directs “Threepenny Opera.” A tenor who teaches voice privately at Princeton University, Kellett directed the Young Stars production of Harvey Schmidt’s “The Fantasticks” at the 2009 Princeton Festival.
Steven La Cosse directs “Ariodante.” Princeton Festival artistic director, Richard Tang Yuk, conducts.
La Cosse, managing director/ resident stage director at the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, has directed more than 40 productions and has sung and acted in more than 80 productions. He directed Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the 2009 Princeton Festival.
“We had a good first day,” he says in a telephone interview after the first of the “Ariodante” rehearsals. “The cast was excited and well-prepared.”
Asked to describe what happens at a first rehearsal, La Cosse says, “After Richard [Tang Yuk] works on the music, I talk about my concept of the piece, in other words, what the piece is about. I ask the cast questions about their characters.”
Months before the first rehearsal Tang Yuk and La Cosse had sketched out their ideas about the piece to each other. Their repeated work together has resulted in a habitual approach. “Richard and I meet and talk about the piece during the year,” La Cosse says. “I never directed ‘Ariodante’ before, and I don’t like to lock myself into too many decisions ahead of time. I reread the libretto many times and thought about how to make it compelling for a modern audience. I have lots and lots of notes. Richard and I have no disagreements. We just talk. Nobody says ‘no.’ Basically, we’re expanding each other’s horizons about the piece. It’s a collaborative affair. Ultimately, though, the conductor is in the performance, and the director is not.”
La Cosse contrasts last year’s “Midummer Night’s Dream” and this year’s “Ariodante.” “The styles are very different,” he says. “‘Ariodante’ is more structured and more formal. The story is very direct and not difficult to follow; it’s easier to tell than ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ ‘Ariodante’ reads like a TV show, say ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty,’ where someone is trying to bust up the wrong person. These two people, Ginevra and Ariodante, are destined to be married. Outside forces break them apart, they don’t know who or why. Finally, there’s a happy ending.”
In his streamlined version of the plot, La Cosse leaves out a few juicy details. Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, is engaged to Ariodante. Polinesso, Ariodante’s rival, tricks Ariodante into thinking that Ginevra is his lover. The king, hearing of his daughter’s supposed infidelity, disowns her. Polinesso offers to defend Ginevra’s honor in a tournament. He is mortally wounded. Dying, he confesses his guilt. The King pardons Ginevra. She marries Ariodante.
“Ariodante” comes at the end of the period of opera seria, when opera devoted itself to serious topics and avoided comedy. “But since it was toward the end of the era, it was more forward-looking than other opera seria,” La Cosse says.
Opera seria was intended as a vehicle in which singers could display their virtuosity. Rather than focusing on the dramatic interplay of characters, opera seria’s earmark was the three-part da capo aria, where the third section, an ornamented repeat of the first section, invited vocalists to show off their prowess. “Opera singers were the rock stars of the 18th century,” La Cosse says. “For modern audiences a performance has to have more to do with telling the story and getting the audience engaged, so listeners can relate to it.
“‘Ariodante’ is, of course, a series of da capo arias,” he says. “For the repeat, I like to express the same idea with a different emotion behind it. For example, the first time, it might be sad, and the second time, hopeless. Or joy, experienced for the first time, might become true happiness. Da capo arias have to advance the story. There are other people on stage. The questions are: Who is the vocalist singing to? Who is the vocalist singing about? I use pantomime and other stage business to further the story. As long as you’re telling the story, everybody wins: singers, director, orchestra, and audience.”
As preparation for directing “Ariodante” La Cosse looked at the 16th century source for the story, Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,” and read and re-read the anonymous libretto adapted from it. In addition, he says, “I read accounts of Handel’s life. You know, he never got involved in theatrical politics. He was a businessman who went bankrupt twice and kept coming back.
“I listened to the music and asked myself how the text related to the music. I listened to the repeat, paying special attention to the embellishments. I get involved with the ornaments. Richard and I offer opinions about the decorations but we let the singers take the ad. Singers put their own stamp on an aria by their ornamentation. If they’re stuck, they can ask. It’s part of the collaborative process.”
“Ariodante” is the second Handel opera that La Cosse has directed. His first was “Radimisto,” which he describes as “Handel’s first big success, in 1711.”
Now 49, La Cosse was born in South Bend, Indiana. His parents still live there and visit him in North Carolina in winter to avoid the snow.
“I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be a musician,” La Cosse says. His mother plays piano; her father’s family is large and musical. La Cosse’s great uncles arranged for Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra, and Trini Lopez.
At 15 La Cosse made his debut in a high school performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” “Boys got extra credit for auditioning,” he says. “I got the lead.”
His decision to pursue a vocal performing career came within the first few minutes of seeing Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” when he was in high school. His academic credentials include two master’s degrees: one in voice from the University of North Texas in Denton, and one in opera stage direction from Indiana University in Bloomington.
La Cosse’s approach to opera directing grows from his experience as a performer. “I understand opera from a singer’s point of view,” he told U.S. 1 last year (June 10, 2009), “things like where it’s difficult to sing and when to look at the conductor, things that are not obvious to the audience. Every director should have appeared on stage.”
Then again, La Cosse’s experience with stagecraft helps him make the vocal end of opera convincing. “The set for ‘Ariodante’ is a ‘unit’ set,” he says. “It can be reconfigured. We use a lot of lighting to create different settings. People in period costumes move scenery on rolling platforms in front of the audience as we go from scene to scene. Performers, visible in the shadows, watch the main action from the columns and archways of the set. Especially, Polinesso [the villain] keeps turning up. He makes an entrance, and we establish that he’s there; then he disappears, without drawing attention to himself. Sometimes you see him exit, sometimes not.”
La Cosse is sensitive to the rarity with which “Ariodante” is performed. “It’s something you haven’t seen before and are not likely to see again,” he says. “It’s a chance to explore new territory. Princeton Festival’s choice of ‘Ariodante’ is a gift to this area.”
“Ariodante,” Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Saturday, June 19, 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 27, 3 p.m. Handel’s opera. $30 to $110. 609-537-0071 or www.princetonfestival.org.