Alternative Stage sponsor: PPC (Public Power Company)
The production is made possible by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) [www.SNF.org] to enhance the Greek National Opera's artistic outreach.
The first production of the GNO Alternative Stage for 2024 features one of the most rarely performed and mysterious works of the 20th century. The legendary opera La Ville morte, the only opera ever composed by leading music educator and conductor Nadia Boulanger, in collaboration with her mentor Raoul Pugno, will be given its Greek premiere -and only its third ever production worldwide- on the GNO Alternative Stage, at the SNFCC. The production will run for five singular performances, on 19, 21, 24, 26 and 28 January 2024 and is realised in co-production with the extraordinary American company Catapult Opera.
The daring opera La Ville morte, based on a play of the same title by notorious Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, who also penned the libretto of the operatic adaptation, tells the tragic and outrageous story of a decadent, incestuous erotic obsession set against the backdrop of the excavation of the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae. The work, with its impressionist music full of references to Debussy, had been scheduled to premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1914 but was ultimately cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I.
Almost a century later, Catapult Opera commissioned American composers Joseph Stillwell and Stefan Cwik to prepare a new orchestration of the work under the supervision of David Conte, one of Boulanger's last protégés, based on a recently discovered piano reduction of the orchestral score. This new ambitious opera production is conducted by Neal Goren, founder and artistic director of Catapult Opera, and directed by Robin Guarino.
Nadia Boulanger: Greatest music educator of the 20th century?
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) is regarded as one of the most important women in the history of music, as she taught a series of iconic 20th century composers such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass. Although she studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire, her works remain barely known, and she practically stopped composing around the age of 35, after the death of her sister Lili, an equally talented composer, as well as of her mentor Raoul Pugno. These events, in combination with the blatantly sexist atmosphere of an era that looked down on her as a «female composer» seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to Boulanger's self-esteem as a creator. The interest in her compositional work -beyond her performing work and her talents as a music educator- has been decisively rekindled over the last decades, through a series of groundbreaking revivals across the globe.
Boulanger was fortunate to be the first woman to stand on the podium of London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. To the persistent question of whether her gender affected her conducting or not, she always replied with the same categorical response: «I don't think sex has anything to do with conducting.»
Boulanger and Pugno: A bond of unparalleled intensity
The relationship between Boulanger and Raoul Pugno has been a source of speculation among biographers. Pugno was thirty-five years older than Boulanger and a famous figure in the international concert scene as a soloist and chamber music performer. He was also a prolific and successful composer of piano and vocal music, as well as of stage works. Although collaborations between composers were not that common, they were not unprecedented in the French stage culture of the time. However, Boulanger and Pugno's potential romantic involvement combined with their musical collaboration was something unique that made their connection both atypical for their time and hard to interpret in the present day.
La Ville morte: The story of a lost opera
Scheduled to premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1914, shortly after Pugno's death during a concert tour in Russia, on which he had gone after a serious surgery, Boulanger and Pugno's La Ville morte, without doubt the most important creative achievement of this great French conductor, music educator and mentor of many of the most prominent figures in the global music scene of the 20th century, is a perverse love story exploring the destructive power of obsession and desire between four characters -the young Hébé, her brother, archaeologist Léonard, his friend, the poet Alexandre and the latter's blind wife Anne- set against the backdrop of the archaeological excavation of Mycenae. This bold opera, with notorious Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio's decadent libretto and impressionist music echoing the influential expressive palette of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, was never presented in its time due to the outbreak of World War I.
The work was first performed only in 2005, at the Festival of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, in a new orchestration using as a guide the only act of the full score that was salvaged and remained intact from a storage room fire. It was also performed for a second time, in concert, at the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden in March 2020. The orchestration of the current version was commissioned by the Catapult Opera from American composers Joseph Stillwell and Stefan Cwik under the supervision of David Conte, one of Boulanger's last protégés before her death in 1979.
Catapult Opera: A company envisions the future of opera
An ideal counterpart to the GNO Alternative Stage in the production of La Ville morte, the New York-based company Catapult Opera strives to expand the genre of opera and its audience, creating innovative productions that showcase the power of the classically-trained voice. Catapult Opera was founded in 2019 by Neal Goren (conductor of La Ville morte), whose previous undertaking, Gotham Chamber Opera, managed to popularise and legitimise the underestimated genre of chamber opera and offer it the same degree of esteem as the pillars of the operatic repertoire.
110 years later, La Ville morte is revived on the Alternative Stage
The new production of La Ville morte will be given its Greek premiere on the GNO Alternative Stage 110 years after its creation. The spare yet impressive set has been designed by Andromache Chalfant, the costumes by Candice Donnelly and the lighting by Jessica Ann Drayton. The roles of the four protagonists are performed by distinguished opera singers: soprano Melissa Harvey, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, baritone Joshua Dennis and tenor Jorell Williams.
The eleven-member instrumental ensemble consists of Marilena Dori (flute / piccolo), Maria Sifnaiou (oboe), Ilias Skordilis (clarinet), Julia Babe (bassoon), Filippos-Marios Spatalas (horn), Spyros Souladakis (piano), Dionisis Vervitsiotis (violin Ι), Vanessa Athanasiou (violin ΙΙ), Jannis Athanasopoulos (viola), Fabiola Ojeda (cello), Yorgos Arnis (double bass).
Following the production's Athens premiere, Catapult Opera presents La Ville morte in its US premiere at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, NY in 19, 20 & 21 April 2024.
LA VILLE MORTE ©Sophie von Hellermann 2023