We were thrilled to hear the stream of Miriam Gideon’s 1958 chamber opera, Fortunato, last week. This was the world premiere of this work, which Gideon apparently wrote hoping that it would be performed by the NBC Opera Theatre. She composed it in three acts, and orchestrated the first act. While her hope was that it would be performed, there was no plan, so was a real labor of love, to write a major work with no expectation hearing it. The story of how this premiere was brought about is worth discussing, but that will be one of the details I return to in a continuation of this essay.
Whitney George completed the orchestration of the opera, studying Gideon’s orchestration of Act I. George also produced and conducted the performance, at Elebash Recital Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center. The project was presented as part of George’s Ph.D. work.
Fortunato is a “tragicomic farce” by the Spanish playwrights Serafín and Joaquín Álvarez Quintero; Gideon’s husband Frederic Ewen wrote the libretto. Fortunato is the name of the protagonist, and it is ironic, as he is desperately trying to find a way to support his family. It is a time of great poverty, and the story opens with Don Vittorio, a beggar, being ushered into the home of Constanza and Alberto, and heaping smarmy praise upon them. He leaves, overflowing with gratitude, but not without trying to steal an umbrella. Don Vittorio’s intensity exhausts Alberto and his wife. When Fortunato arrives, Alberto feels overwhelmed and has no more sympathy left for him. But unlike Don Vittorio, Fortunato is not manipulative, he is simply straightforward and sincere: he seeks work so he can support his family. Alberto sends him away, to come back in a week – but what are his children to eat until then? In Act II, Don Vittorio is going to spend the money (he has wheedled out of Alberto) drinking with a friend. Fortunato contemplates his grim situation: has he brought children into the world, only to let them starve? He considers stealing from a blind street musician, but cannot go through with it. In the third act, Fortunato applies for a job – at first it is not clear what the role will be, but then he meets his new employer — a sharpshooter at the circus. The opera ends with Fortunato facing his desperation – he takes an incredible risk, in holding up props to be shot at, but it seems to be the only alternative to letting his children go hungry.
The music of the first act is full of neoclassical angularity and crisp, taut melodies. There is some clear humor, for instance, the ironic bounciness of a bassoon melody, when Fortunato is brought in to see Alberto, although Alberto insisted he should not be let in. Act II is the emotional core of the work, as Fortunato sings of his plight in an aria that recalls Berg’s Wozzeck in its intensity and dark lyrical power. Comparisons to other composers should not be considered as suggesting that Gideon’s idiom is unoriginal, but rather are a tool I employ to try to contextualize a work on first hearing. Certainly, the combination of poignancy and irony remind us of the Brecht / Weill collaborations, as we sometimes feel Fortunato’s anguish as vivid and powerful, while at other times, it is maudlin and darkly comic.
The entire cast was very strong, and the role of Fortunato is a particularly demanding one. George’s conducting was adept, and the chamber orchestra and vocal ensemble were all brilliant in execution. The three acts were perfromed with commercial breaks — screening of ads a 1958 television audience would have seen. The orchestration was completely convincing, although the task of completing the orchestration was made daunting by the different character of acts II and III in comparison to Act I. George is to be applauded for this important and monumental project. Viewing the streaming, I didn’t make note of the performers’ names but I will try and add those to the continuation of this essay.