Catapult Opera Performs American Premiere of LA VILLE MORTE

Performances run April 19-21.

By: Mar. 22, 2024
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Catapult Opera's production of Nadia Boulanger's La Ville Morte will mark the first time New York audiences will get to experience her sole opera. With a libretto by Gabriele d'Annunzio from his play of the same name, La Ville Morte is a tale of suppressed lust and taboo turned lethal, the prisons of other people's objectifying desires, and the liberatory potential of creativity. Making its American premiere at NYU Skirball (566 LaGuardia Pl) April 19–21 following its co-presentation in Athens with the Greek National Opera, this production of La Ville Morte is directed by Robin Guarino, conducted by Catapult Opera Founder and Artistic Director Neal Goren, with a cast including Melissa Harvey (soprano, in her New York debut in a leading role), Laurie Rubin (mezzo soprano), Joshua Dennis (tenor), and Jorell Williams (baritone).

Nadia Boulanger, most renowned for having developed the talents of musical titans like Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Astor Piazzolla, adapted D'Annunzio's symbolist play La Ville Morte into a transgressive chamber opera in collaboration with pianist and composer Raoul Pugno. La Ville Morte was a bold assertion of Boulanger's artistry made long before she became known as a mentor to the world's greatest composers.


Numerous circumstances led Boulanger away from the pursuit of a career in composition. World War I broke out around the same time her profile was rising. La Ville Morte was intended to premiere at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1914, but the production was canceled due to the war, during which she and her similarly prodigiously talented composer sister Lili devoted considerable energy to creating a charity for musicians on the battlefield. 1914 bore another blow: Pugno, a vital creative partner for Boulanger, died that year. In 1918, Lili, the first woman to win the Prix de Rome (Nadia herself had won the second place prize years earlier after defying the requirement for a vocal fugue with the submission of an instrumental work), succumbed to a lung infection, and Nadia's path shifted more firmly towards teaching.


Though she is now acknowledged within the classical music world as one of its most powerful forces of influence throughout the 20th century, and though her outsize accomplishments include being the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra, Nadia Boulanger's one opera is seldom produced — in large part because its full orchestral score was destroyed in a warehouse bombing during the war. The voice-and-piano score is all that remains.


Neal Goren describes, “When I became aware of this opera, I thought—my goodness, she's so important, let me hear what her music's like. I was sent this piano score of it—it was unbelievably fantastic. The one glitch, of course, was there was no remaining orchestration.” For this production, Goren engaged someone closely familiar with Boulanger—one of her last mentees, David Conte, currently Chair of the Composition Department at San Francisco Conservatory—to oversee the orchestration for an ensemble, a creative and interpretive undertaking he put in the nimble hands of Joseph Stillwell and Stefan Cwik.


After its completion, Goren flew to San Francisco to conduct the new orchestration and “was very, very happy with it.” Director Robin Guarino adds that the orchestration brought “such clarity and color” to Boulanger's musical vision, “it's beautiful.' Goren and Guarino have also brought on a creative team including Andromache Chalfant (Set Designer), Jessica Ann Drayton (Lighting and Projections Designer), Candice Donnelly (Costume Designer), Ariana Smart Truman (Consulting Producer), Spencer Armstrong  (Producer), and Bethany Windham (Stage Manager).


Paralleling the restoration and reconsideration of this partially lost work, the opera itself explores the act of excavation and the revelations brought about by lives and mores recontextualized within a new environment. Set among a quartet of French expatriate archaeologist characters digging up a buried ancient Greek city, La Ville Morte is a twisted love story about the destructive power of obsession and creativity as an escape from the confines of objectification. Hébé (Melissa Harvey) is the object of intense forbidden lust for the other three characters: her closest friend Anne, (Laurie Rubin); Anne's husband Alexandre (Jorell Williams); and her own brother, Léonard (Joshua Dennis). Like the rotten core of the colonial impulse to exoticize, romanticize, and claim a distant place, the desires they seek to enact here are all rooted in projection and an inability to see beyond one's narrow ideal.


Says Guarino, “In Shakespeare, characters retreat to the woods to explore their desires; here, they come to a desert and the site of an ancient, ‘dead' city. These expatriates come to this distant place they perceive as beyond the rules of their society, doing all this unquenchable digging both literal and symbolic: crossing all these boundaries of sexuality, of marriage, of incest. Back in 1914, this opera was asking so many huge questions about romantic love, sexual and erotic love, and whether a woman artist at the time could leave the boundaries  of other people's desires in order to be creative. It was asking: do women have any value in society after they are no longer sex objects, love objects, aesthetic objects? It feels so clear to me, working on this piece, that Boulanger was herself trying to figure out how to be a creative person within the rules society set for women.