Jake Heggie's new opera Great Scott, with a libretto by Terence McNally, opened last week at the Dallas Opera. Heggie and McNally are known individually for their many award-winning works, and best known as a team for their very successful opera Dead Man Walking.

Joyce DiDonato (Arden Scott) © Karen Almond | Dallas Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Arden Scott)
© Karen Almond | Dallas Opera
This is an exciting score, with an opera-within-an-opera written in a style that emulates 19th-century bel canto but is current and modern. Some of those bel canto characteristics are mirrored in the entire score. Arias and cabalettas within the bel canto opera rival those of the bel canto greats in flash and in beauty, and Heggie includes long, arching melodies reminiscent of bel canto melodies throughout the entire opera. There is even a terrifically confused, very quick-moving, Rossini-like Act I finale, with at least one real Rossini crescendo. 

The original story by McNally centers around the production of a rediscovered opera by fictional composer Vittorio Bazzetti, called Rosa Dolorosa, figlia di Pompei. American opera star Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato) takes credit for its discovery in a St Petersburg archive. Arden has arranged for its première to take place at the American Opera – a world première, as it had never been produced when composed in 1835. American Opera is run by Arden's former mentor Winnie Flato (Frederica von Stade). The futures of many individuals and of American Opera itself could depend on the success of this production. Other familiar “opera subplots” occur, including the introduction of lovers from the past, backstage intrigue that involves a comically ambitious young soprano named Tatyana Bakst (Ailyn Pérez), and the fact the pro football team (owned by Winnie's husband) is playing in the Super Bowl... which takes place the same night as the opera's opening, in the same city. Oh yes, and the ghost of Bazzetti shows up!

I was especially tickled by how Heggie and McNally included a rehearsal scene in which everything goes wrong. (I was even more tickled when Arden faltered in the middle of a long stretch of fioritura and uttered, “This shit is hard!”) Many other parts of the opera deserve special attention, including the hilarious version of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by Tatyana, who is not American, at the Super Bowl, with bel canto-style ornamentation comparable to the “scatting” of pop or jazz singers; stage manager Roane's (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) tirade against opera as being irrelevant; the quartet of treble voices – Arden, Tatyana, Winnie and Roane – musing on their choices and sacrifices; and Arden's Act II soliloquy, in which she admits she'll never reach the impossible ideal she aspires to, in spite of all her sacrifice and success. There is a touching duet between Arden and Winnie, reminiscing about their relationship as mentor and student. Arden asks about Winnie's former aspirations, and Winnie demurs, saying, “You were my career.” Arden echoes this feeling when Sid, her love from her youth, refers to Arden's wild side as a teenager and Arden replies, “You were my wild side.”

Ailyn Pérez (Tatyana Bakst) © Karen Almond | Dallas Opera
Ailyn Pérez (Tatyana Bakst)
© Karen Almond | Dallas Opera

My usual focus is on the performances, and here I have no complaints whatsoever. Joyce DiDonato gave the dramatically thoughtful and vocally stunning performance one expects from her. There were some passages in the score that seemed a bit high for Ms DiDonato, but she negotiated them well. Her Act II mad scenes (one as Arden and one as Rosa) were magic. Frederica von Stade was in fine form vocally and gave a noble performance of a woman who has sacrificed her ambitions for marriage, and she and Ms DiDonato had a lovely chemistry singing together. Ailyn Pérez showed comic flair as the self-absorbed, ambitious young soprano, and also showed the singing talents to back up her ambitions.

Kevin Burdette did double duty as Eric, the conductor of Rosa Dolorosa, and the Ghost of Bazzetti. He distinguished the two characters very well with vocal quality as much as make-up and costume. Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes as two self-absorbed members of the Rosa Dolorosa cast provided both amusement and unexpected insights with their preening behavior and Mr McNally's words. Both are excellent singers and comic actors. Nathan Gunn sounded and looked handsome as Sid, Arden's former love. Anthony Roth Costanzo gave the stage manager Roane quite a few memorable singing and acting moments, both cynical and tender.

<i>Great Scott</i> © Karen Almond | Dallas Opera
Great Scott
© Karen Almond | Dallas Opera

Conductor Patrick Summers has a long association with Jake Heggie, including conducting the world première of Dead Man Walking, and this showed in his handling of the score. The entire production team deserve kudos, especially director Jack O'Brien. 

Complaints? Very few, mostly with some of the exposition plot devices. For example, even someone as self absorbed as Tatyana would not sing an introductory aria to people she's been rehearsing with for weeks. Some of the conversational exposition points were less graceful than others, such as when Winnie abruptly brings up how Arden had broken Sid's heart. These are small points, and will likely be cleared up when McNally and Heggie are asked to trim the length of the opera (the first act alone is 90 minutes!). They should not mar anyone's enjoyment of this very fine opera. Highly recommended.