Opera Review: The Aspern Papers at the Dallas Opera
A group of internationally acclaimed singers is assembled for this contemporary opera that will likely appeal most to enthusiastic lovers of classical music.

Opera Review: The Aspern Papers

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The Dallas Opera at Winspear Opera House

Music and libretto by Dominick Argento, Directed by Tim Albery

Based on a Novella by Henry James


Dominick Argento’s contemporary opera The Aspern Papers is a unique combination of elements that left audiences a bit stunned and with drastically mixed reactions.  The 1988 piece, originally commissioned by The Dallas Opera and now marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of its world premiere, opened on Friday night at the Winspear with the American composer himself in attendance.  Conducted by Graeme Jenkins in his final Dallas Opera performances as Music Director before assuming the status “emeritus,” the orchestral score of The Aspern Papers is profoundly beautiful with intricate melodies that feel delicately lacy and feathery light.


Seizing an opportunity to assemble a group of internationally acclaimed singers, the production brings together Canadian-born French soprano Alexandra Deshorties singing the role of Juliana Bordereau, a former opera diva now living as a recluse, and Grammy Award-winning mezzo soprano Susan Graham portraying Tina, Juliana’s spinster niece.  Renowned American baritone Nathan Gunn arrives as the mysterious Lodger, a writer who is surreptitiously seeking a manuscript by the god-like composer Aspern played by Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser in his company debut.  A series of flash-back-and-forth scenes spanning fifty years also feature bass Dean Peterson as the impresario Barelli and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Barelli’s mistress Sonia.


Simple, late 19th century, period-appropriate costumes along with low action and minimal set design depicting a decaying Italian villa leave room for a complex story line similar in style to a John Grisham novel with an overall effect that will likely appeal most to enthusiastic lovers of classical music.  Although the opera is sung in English, a heavy reliance on supertitle translations is necessary (consider the way you can’t always understand the words to songs playing on the radio), so we suggest becoming familiar with the plot in advance (a two-page summary can be found in the playbill and online) so that your enjoyment of the music is not overly distracted.


Although some very knowledgeable patrons seated near us were ecstatic with the anticipation of Susan Graham singing Dominick Argento, a first-time operagoer awkwardly felt badly for not loving a significant part of the performance, and a season ticket holder was humorously hopping mad over the surprise twist ending (which, by the way, we highly recommend not reading beforehand in the last paragraph of the plot synopsis).


The Dallas Opera also offers an informative pre-opera talk be given by Christopher Anderson one hour before each performance in Hamon Hall at the Winspear Opera House. Tickets are also available for remaining performances of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot (April 13, 19, 21, 2013), an opera about a barbarian prince who risks everything to win the hand (and ignite the love) of the cold and calculating Princess Turandot.  

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Photos by Karen Almond courtesy of The Dallas Opera