SOME MEMORABLE MOMENTS ONSTAGE IN THE LIFE
OF A YOUNG OPERA SINGER
In Gaetano Donizetti’s Alahor in Granata,
Vivica Genaux got to wear a beard and a mustache.
She also got to ride on a real, live horse!
It was fun. But in the same scene she actually encountered one of the perils of being an opera singer.
“I don’t know how many singers have the unique opportunity of singing recitatives on a sneezing horse in front of a full house!”
In the opera, Vivica sang the pants role of the hero Hassem and the production had her riding into a scene on a horse! The scenario, as Vivica put it:
“Of course, the horse was drugged out of his mind so he wouldn’t freak out at the 150 chorus and supers standing around in armor carrying spears… That was quite interesting…. we were way upstage on this raised platform and the horse had to walk on to center stage, stop, wait for me to sing my page of recitative, and then get led out after I dismounted and walked downstage for the aria. It was a potentially great moment dramatically, only the poor dear didn’t have much of a sense of timing so we arrived either much too soon and had to stand around looking important while waiting for the chorus to finish up their bit, or (worse) we got there long after the chorus had finished. The latter instance was particularly miserable as the horse was drugged out of his poor mind and all he could muster was a funereal plod, forget a triumphant prance… so if the chorus had already finished, first the audience heard what sounded like the approach of a rather large hippopotamus with tap shoes on (remember, we’re on a raised platform for the entrance… a raised, *hollow*, platform, the projection of which would rival the best drums in Africa),
A N D !!! then about a minute and a half later see this totally dejected horse trudge on one night, in the throes of a sneezing fit… he was allergic to the incense they were using on stage! It was too artistic for words.”
Wisely, the director made sure the horse made only a very transitory appearance… just till Vivica started the aria, at which point he was coaxed off stage by the handlers as quietly as possible.
But horse laughs aside, what is Alahor in Granata and why did Vivica have to wear a beard?
Alahor is what one would consider an obscure or a rare opera. Not because it was written by an obscure composer – certainly today Donizetti wouldn’t be considered one. Most everyone knows he wrote some of the most frequently performed operas: L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment; and how about Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda to name three others? But actually Donizetti wrote more than a handful of operas – 65 to be exact! And… you got it! A good number of them would fall in the obscure or very rarely staged category. Alahor is one of these, and this Alahor is its first staging since 1826! In fact, for many years it was considered one of Donizetti’s lost works. Not anymore. Let’s hear Vivica, who portrayed the “pants role” of Hassem (hence the beard and the moustache) tell what the opera’s all about:
“Hassem is the king of a Moorish clan called the Zegri, and has established peace between his clan and the Abenceraghi who also live in Granada. In his entrance, Hassem is returning from battle and has come back to Granada to tell his people that rather than pillage and destroy the enemy he has made peace with them, that Granada’s tranquillity will no longer be threatened by war.”
And like most operas, there is a villain with whom the hero feuds over a beautiful object of love.
In the end Hassem the hero… “actually overpowers the bass (in opera bass = villain), has his evil vizier put away in chains, gets the girl and lives happily ever after!”
Definitely no tragic ending here.
This Alahor in Granata was produced in Seville, Spain ( a region once ruled by the Moors) and staged at the Teatro de la Maestranza. A fitting venue for a revival of this opera about rival Moorish clans. And how did Vivica like the opera and the production?
“It was a pretty traditional production with absolutely stunning sets by Ezio Frigerio (replicas of actual walls and designs in the Alhambra) and costumes by Franca Squarciapino. We had fabric from antique indian saris made into sashes, capes, turbans, harem pants… the works! I had 6 layers of clothing and armor for my first entrance on the horse, but Squarciapino is so fabulous: she only used very lightweight fabrics in very rich hues with tapestry-like designs on them making them look heavier than they were, so you were actually quite unimpeded by the costumes. I had three costumes in all, and you can only imagine the number of costumes they had to create for 150 chorus and supers in addition to the 5 principals. It was an immense production.
There were two acts, structured a lot like the Rossini operas… everyone had a great entrance aria in the first act, a Rossini-like ensemble at the end of Act I, and a rondo for the heroine at the end of Act II… just like Cenerentola!
It’s a gorgeous piece, and I was *so* excited to have been part of it! The music is beautiful, my character fab, and the cast and staff excellent… it was a real blast! ”
How did she prepare for the role?
“I asked Will Crutchfield to help me work out ornaments and cadenzas while we were working on the Lucrezia Borgia at the Caramoor Festival this summer, then had about 10 days in Italy where I was working with my teacher and a coach at the EPCASO program. After that I had a good idea of what I wanted to do musically with the part, and the character himself really developed through the actual rehearsals in Seville.
I had 4 and a half weeks of rehearsal… it was great too because at that theater (Teatro de la Maestranza) they begin rehearsing no earlier than 4 in the afternoon, usually a musical rehearsal with the maestro first and then staging rehearsals beginning at 6 or 6:30 PM. It was wonderful!!! Of course, the rehearsals went until 11:30 or later, but around 11:30 the director started getting hungry and we were usually dismissed so he could go eat dinner (a true Spaniard!)”
So, there you have it. All about the first modern staging of Alahor in Granata, on stage and behind the scenes – told by Hassem himself! Next Vivica essays another “pants role” – Handel’s Ariodante at the Dallas Opera…and many more new roles are in the horizon. What a trouper!