Sunday, August 01, 1999

Muni makes his mark

Opera's artistic director leading company along his path

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nicholas Muni's third season as artistic director of Cincinnati Opera was a success financially and artistically.

        While operagoers were becoming accustomed to a new look and fresh ideas under Mr. Muni's leadership, the opera board was celebrating record ticket sales.

        Having to turn away ticket buyers for three operas is an enviable problem. Next year, betting that it can sell another 3,000 tickets, the company will capitalize on this popularity by adding a performance to its production of Aida.

        “This is phenomenal. It's backing for what we've been doing,” says Donald E. Hoffman, outgoing board president. “People want to come and be a part of it.”

        Consider the numbers:

        • Six of the eight performances were sell-outs in the 1999 summer festival of four operas: Don Giovanni, La Boheme, The Turn of the Screw and Faust.

        • For the first time in the company's history, ticket income went over the $1 million mark.

        • Subscription sales were the highest in 10 years, with nearly 1,300 new subscribers this season.

        Perhaps the most telling figure were the numbers for its riskiest venture — the company's first mounting of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Music Hall was filled to more than 90 percent capacity.

        If every opera lover was not thrilled with every aspect of the season, which ranged from a traditional La Boheme to a modernist approach in Faust, Cincinnati Opera was nevertheless the talk in arts circles.

        “I think Nicholas Muni is an absolute genius,” says Atarah Jablonsky of Wyoming. A New York native who grew up attending the Metropolitan Opera, she particularly enjoyed The Turn of the Screw.

        “There's hardly a singable tune, but I'm glad I saw it,” she says. “The voices were wonderful, and that towering room (the set) made you focus on the human drama.”

Building a reputation
        Throughout the season, the voices were of a high calibre. Staging was imaginative, concepts provocative, and the look was often arresting. Add to that the fine performances by the chorus, trained by Henri Venanzi, the excellent playing in the pit by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the ingredients are there for Cincinnati Opera to become a force on the national scene.

        It's all part of the company's plan.

        “We as a board want to be recognized as the place for an outstanding singer to be, a singer on their way up,” Mr. Hoffman says. “That's not unlike our days at the zoo, where the very best singers from New York wanted to come here for the summer. If we do things right, we will again have that reputation.”

        This season was an ambitious one for Mr. Muni, who directed three of the operas, with help in Faust from associate stage director Robert McQueen. The company built two new productions and reworked another (Don Giovanni) belonging to Minnesota Opera.

        The Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James' chilling ghost story, was the season's dramatic tour de force. The combined effect of the singing, Mr. Muni's staging and Peter Werner's spectacular design resulted in the most riveting theatrical experience since last year's Jenufa.

        Despite having the lowest attendence, 6,189, the audience was larger than anticipated. Still, the opera was not well received by some who disliked the often dissonant quality of Britten's music.

"Boheme' was favorite
        At the other end of the spectrum, the audience favorite (6,828 attendees) was Puccini's tried-and-true La Boheme, directed by Sandra Bernhard. Exuberantly staged, it was an engaging production, and the four Bohemians were especially well-matched. In his Cincinnati Opera debut as Rodolfo, Lebanon tenor Hugh Smith received enthusiastic standing ovations on both nights.

        Faust, also an audience favorite, came in second, with attendance of 6,814. There was much to admire, including Gounod's beautiful musical score, well sung by the fine cast. Special effects were spectacular, including computerized animated ghosts (donated by Alan Brown of Photonics Graphics) and giant puppets by Saw Theater in Act I's Kermesse (fair) scene. But inconsistencies left a final impression that was less strong than the other operas.

        The third largest audience (6,778) saw Don Giovanni, a production with a spare look. The excellent cast included Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, 34, who swaggered as the Don in his American debut.

        The performance merged the Prague and Vienna versions of the opera, and in the process, the famous Act II aria, “Il mio tesoro” sung by Don Ottavio, was cut. That was a big disappointment to Bert Peretz of Lexington and others who consider it one of the finest tenor arias ever written.

        But the most talked-about touch came at the end, when Mr. Muni had the Don rise out of hell and walk out through the audience, leaving the cast staring blankly after him.

        What did it mean? Mr. Muni isn't saying, prefering to let the audience speculate.

Changes expensive
        An era of change is fully launched, but change comes at a cost. In four years, Cincinnati Opera has gone from being a $2.5 million company to one with an operating budget of $4 million.

        Next year, that will creep up to about $4.2 million. That does not include the costs of building sets, for example, or buying new lighting equipment.

        “We've made some dramatic shifts in quality, the types of productions we're putting on, and the sets we're renting and building,” Mr. Hoffman says. “We're putting a lot more investment in all of that.”

        Meanwhile, Mr. Muni's challenge is to keep up the momentum while finding the right mix for the Cincinnati audience.

        The company's 80th anniversary season in 2000 includes a new production of Aida with American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves singing her first Amneris. It will be “Aida in all its grandeur and splendor” but it will also be “challenging and non-traditional,” Mr. Muni says.

        Richard Strauss' Salome, last performed by the company in 1982, will also be a new production, part of a three-opera project including this year's Turn of the Screw and Elektra in 2002.

        For Rossini's sparkling La Cenerentola, Mr. Muni is looking at a 19th-century production.

        Finally, next season's least-known opera, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, has a ravishing score that should appeal to everyone. It will be paired with Aida in one week (July 13-15) in the hope of attracting out-of-towners. Mr. Muni's goal in the next five years is to have three performances of every production.

        But most of all, he hopes for continued acceptance of the non-traditional, of opera that explores new interpretations and sometimes brings the audience into unfamiliar territory.

        For now, he's happy for the buzz.

        “We're there to entertain people,” he says. “But we're also there to challenge people, to get the juices flowing, and to get people to have discussions.”

        What did you think of Cincinnati Opera's season? Write to: Janelle Gelfand, classical music critic, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax, 768-8330; e-mail:


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