Photo: Christian Steiner


 Thea Musgrave


(2003) An opera in Two Acts
Duration: 130'
Cast: 5 Principals; 4 comprimario; 1 minor
Chorus: SATB
Commissioned by New Orleans Opera to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary
of the Louisiana Purchase

World Premiere: 2 October 2003, New Orleans
New Orleans Opera / Robert Lyall, conductor /Jay Lesenger, director

Publisher:  Novello & Co Ltd

Critical Acclaim:

The New Orleans Opera's production of Pontalba offers a glimmer of good sense to an American classical-music establishment that has not been demonstrating a lot of it. Playing at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, this is a new opera that a city has created about itself. Patrons on Saturday night were also celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, the backdrop for the Pontalba story. Many of them daily walk by Jackson Square, which was designed and built by the French baroness of the title, an American who was born here, lived unhappily and violently in France and returned home in 1849 to oversee this series of elegant facades and galleries. Anyone wondering whether "Pontalba" will find its way to international stages is missing the point. New Orleans offers a particularly vivid example of expansion dreams gone wrong. In the 1980's the New Orleans Symphony thought big, squandering its endowment and hiring marquee conductors with international names, who fled with the first arrival of fiscal pressures, and it failed. Reborn as the self-governing Louisiana Philharmonic, the orchestra played in the pit on Saturday, conducted by the opera company's general director, Robert Lyall.

Thea Musgrave, a Scottish composer with long ties to the American South, was commissioned by the company to write the music and libretto, just as city leaders might have turned to an outside architect to decorate its skyline. But in the final scene, as rotating stage panels formed to enclose the players in a representation of Jackson Square itself, the oohs and ahs of communal identification were palpable.

The problems with "Pontalba" are not musical. It houses three potential operas and can't really decide which one it wants to be. To be fair, it is hostage to sets of historical facts that, although linked, never quite fit the convenient and symmetrical arc on which grand opera thrives. Is this an opera about America's vast acquisition from France and the aftereffects of Spanish rule? Does it center on the baroness de Pontalba and her long life in France among greedy and homicidal in-laws? Or is it about a place in New Orleans, as in the end it decides to be?

Ms. Musgrave composes for the stage with great skill. One can hear her sense of the orchestra and her ear for forward, ever-moving vocal lines as they listen to the events onstage and respond to them moment to moment. The crowd scenes and ensemble work are complex but free of tangles: every crossing musical line has its own clear story to tell. The production, by Jay Lesenger and Erhard Rom, is modest, but its blowups of architectural drawings illustrate a scene's time and place with some precision.

The cast was strong throughout without relying on international names. Yali-Marie Williams sang the baroness with energy and security. Robert Breault as her husband worked hard and honorably. Others were Jane Gilbert, Jake Gardner, John Giraud, Kathryn Day, Fahnlohnee Harris, Enrique Toral and Ray Fellman. Across Rampart Street, hordes of visiting partygoers celebrated a Saturday night on the streets. At the Mahalia Jackson Theater, residents of New Orleans were celebrating themselves.
— Bernard Holland - The New York Times 10/7/03

The story of Micaela Almonester, the 19th century New Orleans businesswoman better known as the Baroness de Pontalba, reads like an opera. Thursday evening at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts, it looked and sounded like an opera, too, as the New Orleans Opera Association presented the world premiere of Pontalba, the two-act work on the baroness's life it commissioned from composer Thea Musgrave as part of the celebration of the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial.

The opera also deals with that great land sale and the growth of a nation, which it presents as paralleling the baroness' struggles as she fought to maintain control of her inheritance in a male-dominated society. Two of the most memorable scenes show her father-in-law trying to kill her because she won't bend to his rules and her triumph when she succeeds in constructing her dream buildings, the twin rows of Jackson Square townhouses that still bear her name.

Musgrave wrote the libretto as well as composing the music, resulting in a near-perfect fit between the two. Pontalba doesn't incorporate arias or other standard forms of vocal embellishment, but there are moments of lyrical beauty in scenes between Micaela and her husband, Célestin de Pontalba, and between Micaela and her mother. The strength of Musgrave's music lies in the orchestration, and conductor Robert Lyall drew the full range of the composer's emotion from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which shone in the opera's most intense moments.

The action switches rapidly between France and New Orleans, and Erhard Rom's sets make the transitions flow naturally. The set is dominated by wrought iron shaped in the initials A.P. (for Almonester and Pontalba), like the design on the balconies of the Pontalba buildings. The scene changes are made with architectural drawings that descend from above, though a technical glitch resulted in some delays on opening night.

Just as the music is excellent, so were the singers. Yali Marie Williams portrayed Micaela both in all her girlish charm and as a mature, strong-willed woman fighting for her very existence, and her lyric soprano voice carried the role convincingly. As her husband, Robert Breault acted the role of the indecisive Célestin believably; his voice blended well with Williams' in their duets and rang out clearly in scenes of confrontation. As Joseph Pontalba, Célestin's father, Jake Gardner's bass-baritone cut sharply through ensemble scenes, and Kathryn Day brought to life his scheming and domineering wife.

Jane Gilbert made Louise Pontalba, Micaela's mother, a strong but gentle personality with a penetrating voice. Ray Fellman, as the Almonesters' lawyer, needed more strength in his voice, as did Enrique Toral as the Pontalba's lawyer. Fahnlohnee Harris' character role of Cassie, the Almonesters' servant, was a delightful blend of comedy and seriousness. Also executing their roles well were Charles Robert Stephens as the mayor of New Orleans and John Giraud as Louise Pontalba's second husband. Kitty Cleveland's speaking role of Ernestine also was well done.

Whether as guests at a soiree or as a crowd reacting to the Louisiana Purchase or the dedication of the new Pontalba buildings, the chorus, under the direction of Carol Rausch, performed and sang well. Throughout, director Jay Lesenger's stage direction captured the spirit of the scenes, and Dan Darnutzer's lighting helped create the varied moods.

The production is a remarkable achievement for the New Orleans Opera Association and should not be missed. Pontalba will be repeated tonight and Sunday afternoon.
Keith Marshall - Times-Picayune 10/4/03

Brief Synopsis:

This opera was commissioned by New Orleans Opera to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. This remarkable event, which doubled the size of the young United States of America, is the background of the story of the Pontalba family. Because of it the family had to leave New Orleans for France.

The story of Micaela who married into this family is a dramatic one. After many years of financial struggles Micaela's father-in-law in a desperate attempt to keep control of her dowry tries to kill her. He fails and in his shame kills himself. Micaela thus secures her inheritance and returns to New Orleans and as the first woman architect builds the famous Pontalba buildings in Jackson Square. She has managed to transcend the personal tragedies of her life, remain true to her calling, and to leave a lasting legacy of beauty and tranquillity for the city of her birth.


This opera was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). The true story of the Pontalba family is set against the dramatic events of those early years of the newly independent United States of America.

The first act curtain of the opera reveals a mature Micaela reminiscing over a reception where, many years ago, she met her future husband Célestin de Pontalba. It was here that Célestin's father, the Baron de Pontalba, brought the news of the intended transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France.

Despite some family opposition the love between Célestin de Pontalba and Micaela progresses, and the dowry -- after much discussion and some acrimony -- is negotiated, and all seems set for a long and happy marriage. At this point the news comes of the sudden and unexpected sale of the entire Louisiana Territory by Napoleon to America.

Most people rejoice at this news. They will now live independently of any European power and they are excited by the vast new opportunities that this represents. But for Pontalba the situation is different; facing enormous financial difficulties, he has returned to France to renew business possibilities there.

Against the backdrop of the celebrations over the Louisiana Purchase with all its potential, Micaela faces a momentous choice. Should she marry and go with Célestin to live in France, separated from all she has known and loved, and in particular her involvement with the numerous building projects started by her father. She makes her choice to marry Célestin. They sing of true love against the mounting jubilation of the crowd celebrating a new America.

The second act opens several years later. Micaela and her mother, Louise, exchange letters. Louise tells of her excitement "that our wilderness has been explored by a Mr. Clark and a Mr. Lewis". Micaela already misses her home in New Orleans and tells of a worsening financial situation but also of Célestin's sullen and angry behavior towards her.

Louise then writes that she has been requested to restore the buildings on Jackson Square damaged in the great fire and of the challenge that this represents. Micaela replies excitedly that she will come home to help her mother. But Louise is advised by her attorney, Mr. Monroe, that "on no account should Micaela come back without her husband's permission. She could be accused of desertion, could lose all she has, and even be denied access to her children." Micaela's reaction to this news is one of despair. She is a "captive" in her own house.

When Micaela asks Célestin to accompany her on a visit to America he very reluctantly reveals that because he ran up enormous debts in New Orleans, his family forced him to sign a note giving up control of all of their money including the dowry that she has brought. So there is no money for a journey to America. Micaela is outraged, not only because he has hidden this from her, but also because it has given his father control over their lives. Célestin warns her that his father can be dangerous when he is opposed and he will certainly oppose any idea of a journey to America. Micaela responds defiantly that she is not afraid.

In the next scene Mr. Dupin, Pontalba's lawyer arrives unexpectedly bringing the news of the death of Micaela's mother. He has found a way to turn financial matters to Pontalba's advantage but before the news is generally known Célestin must be persuaded to sign a document that he has brought with him.

The family and guests gather together and there is a moment of noisy conversation. When Micaela enters she is conspicuously ignored by everybody. Since this is evidently their normal behavior Micaela is not even surprised. However when she announces that she and Célestin are planning a visit to America, the conversation stops short. Pontalba is furious and his rage knows no bounds when Micaela accuses him of stealing the money from her dowry. She threatens to leave for America and to tell the world how he has cheated her.

Tensions mount when Madame Pontalba reminds her husband that laws in America are different, that Micaela could very well sue him in the Courts there, and once again they will face financial ruin. Pontalba now accuses his son of dividing his family. "A family that lies and cheats" says Célestin as he suddenly snatches the document from his father's hand and exits quickly. Pontalba facing rebellion within his own family realizes he must take decisive action.

As the scene changes to Micaela's room we see Pontalba in silhouette holding a gun. Micaela is hurriedly packing. Pontalba in a wild action attempts to murder his daughter-in-law, and she is severely wounded.

Madame Pontalba is aghast at this violent action and accuses her husband of ruining the family's honor. Pontalba realizes he has lost the support of his wife and his son. He exits. A moment later we hear the sound of a distant gun shot. Pontalba has killed himself.

In the next scene we see Micaela preparing for her journey to America. Despite loud protests of Célestin and his mother, she leaves and, crossing the stage, returns to New Orleans where she is greeted warmly. Mr. Monroe advises her that the American courts have ruled that the inheritance is hers absolutely. Her mother has protected her against the grasping Pontalba family. Micaela can now realize her family's dream to revitalize her beautiful city.

Micaela is welcomed by the Mayor of New Orleans and the crowd who are gathered to celebrate the newly built Pontalba buildings. Against the background of celebration Micaela tells Mr. Monroe that now the buildings are completed she must return to France to care for Célestin. Although he has not been loyal to her, her marriage vows are sacred and cannot be forgotten. Once again she crosses the stage, this time to return to France, and she is reunited with Célestin. Gradually we understand that he is mentally enfeebled. The opera thus ends on a note of joy and celebration, and at the same time sadness and personal sacrifice. For Micaela, Célestin has become "an empty shell and that for her, love is just a fiction." Simultaneously in New Orleans, people celebrate the new Pontalba buildings, their city, and their country. They must learn to govern it with justice, with tolerance, and learn to live in harmony and peace and beauty."

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