Love gone berserk puts genuine scare into Lansing Symphony opener
Fright-mongering titles like “The Dance of Terror,” “March to the Scaffold” and “Der Vampyr” gently hint at a not-so-gentle theme for the Lansing Symphony’s season opener, which comes a bit late, Oct. 6, this year.
No - not Halloween. This is really scary stuff: sex and love gone epically bad. True to form, music director Timothy Muffitt isn’t serving up the obvious picks, like “Night on Bald Mountain” or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Walt Disney wouldn’t know what to do with the monsterwork of the evening, “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz — a fever dream of sexual frustration and creepy stalking, complete with a beheading, a whirlwind witches’ Sabbath and more “art pain” than any composer has ever packed into one symphony. Muffitt has drafted all of the orchestra’s regulars as well as the reserves — 90 musicians in all — to realize one of the most extravagant and dreamlike epics in the repertoire.
Friday’s concert will sink in its fangs with an overture from an obscure opera by Heinrich Marschner, “Der Vampyr.”
Muffitt was bitten and recruited a few years ago, when he heard the New Orleans Opera perform the entire opera. “I thought it was a really bold move, but it was a big success and I grabbed onto the overture,” Muffitt said.
But the sleeper of the night is a crackling, vivid ballet suite, “El Amor Brujo,” by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla.
Falla’s supple, insinuating music has such instant appeal it’s been adapted for all kinds of formats, from full orchestra to chamber group to solo guitar. One dance from Friday’s suite was famously recorded by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis as “Will-o’- the-wisp” on the album “Sketches of Spain.” A movie version of the ballet, directed by Francisco Roviro Boleta, won the Oscar in 1967 for Best Foreign Film.
A widowed gypsy woman longs to finally come together with her true love, but she can’t get rid of that pesky dead husband.
“It’s like a rollercoaster,” guest soprano soloist Amanda Bottoms said. “You go through a lot of different emotions with her. It’s not an operetta, but it almost feels like one, with these lush orchestral textures.” The centerpiece is the aforementioned “Dance of Terror,” with a scarier scenario than that of “Dracula.”
“She realizes she did not love her husband, he was not a great guy, and he might not even be dead — maybe the ghost is really him,” Bottoms said.
To fight off the un-undead, Candela colludes with a woman with whom her husband had an affair — the jerk! The other woman lures the ghost into a new flirtation, allowing our heroine to run off with her beloved.
“I’m so tied into this music emotionally, even though I am not of any Latin descent,” Bottoms said. “I feel very connected to that feeling of hopelessness that transforms into creativity and then independence.”
Bottoms said it’s not hard to see a feminist theme.
“It’s two women defeating one man who is haunting them from beyond the grave,” she said. “He could materialize at any time and yet they beat him. She overcame an abusive, horrible relationship with a man who never loved her and she never loved him.”
This is Bottoms’ Michigan debut, but she and Muffitt have worked together several times at the Chautauqua Music Festival in upstate New York, where Muffitt conducts a major opera and several other concerts each year.
They struck sparks together in a competition where Bottoms sang the sultry Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen.”
“He’s very passionate,” Bottoms said. “If you have an idea, he’s willing to flesh it out. I’m very drawn to the dance nature of this song, and I wanted to stretch it out and play with the rhythm, and he was 100 percent for it.”
“She has an extraordinary dramatic presence in front of an orchestra,” Muffitt said. “There’s going to be a powerful combination, with her singing this work.”
Bottoms is drawn irresistibly to the gypsy spirit of both “Carmen” and “El Amor Brujo.”
“They want to do what they want do do, when they want it, no matter the cost. That boundless freedom — I’m so drawn to that, even though in real life, I have to go to classes and sing roles people want us to play.”
Bottoms grew up in Buffalo and went to Maryvale High School, where an influential teacher, Ann Mosner, changed her life.
“She was like my second mom,” Bottoms said. “I really wanted to be like her.”
She soon found that her heart was in performance and not teaching, but it took two rounds of auditions and a lot of persistence to make it to Juilliard and the Curtis Institute.
“I felt like I didn’t belong, like an intruder,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.
All these people went to conservatories.”
Now she’s in her fourth year of study at Curtis with a legendary voice teacher, Marlena Malas. “Three very important women, female teachers, have influenced me to get me to this point, and my mother, Valerie, was adamant about us all pursuing our dreams,” she said.
Bottoms’ elder sister is a painter, and her younger sister is a cellist and bassoonist — “a bunch of women showing that you can do it, no matter what.”
Bottoms has already covered a wide gamut of roles, from “Carmen” to “Ariodante” by Georg Frederic Handel. (Baroque opera is a big passion of hers.) Lately, she has turned to classic American theater and will sing the role of Anita in “West Side Story” in Tokyo early next year.
Last week, Bottoms and Muffitt talked excitedly about an interpretation of “El Amor Brujo” by phone. They even discussed what would be most effective color for her to wear. There wasn’t really much discussion.
“Red is the right color,” Bottoms said.
“It represents passion, anguish, fire — the power of fire.”
To Bottoms, the “fear of fire” — both romantic passion and actual hellfire — is at the heart of the whole night, especially the Falla and Berlioz pieces.
“This young man [in the Symphonie Fantastique] is going through hallucinations that are more real than reality,” she said. “It’s different gender perspectives about the same situation.”
Lansing Symphony Orchestra Amanda Lynn Bottoms, mezzo-soprano 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall