Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Opera

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Review | Antigone | By Jean Anouilh | Translated by Lewis Galantière | Fusion Theatre

                                                … the force of destiny …

Here’s an amazing experience!   You walk into a small off-Broadway theater.  The stage is about as minimal as can be – mainly there’s a baffle board at the back and an upright piano to the side.  Early on  Antigone, kneeling, agonized by Creon’s order forbidding burial for the body of her rebellious brother, expresses her anguish with an operatic soprano aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”  from Verdi’s La Forza del destino.  What a shock!  And what a way to convey intense emotion in a play.

Eilin O'Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother in Antigone by Jean Anouilh, presented by Fusion Theatre. Photo Jonathan Staff

Eilin O’Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother. Photo Jonathan Staff

The Fusion Theatre, originated by Eilin O’Dea, who directs the production and plays Antigone, is dedicated to the idea of merging classical theatre and opera.   This production  presents the text of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone of 1944 with the addition of four arias, and choral music from Saint-Saëns’ opera Antigone.   The impact is powerful.  The story, that Anouilh drew from Sophocles’ great drama written in the Fifth Century B.C., is famous for pitting the will of a girl against a king.

According to the ancient legend, Antigone, her sister Ismene, and their brothers, Polynices and Eteocles are the children of the fateful marriage of Oedipus with his mother.  Now Oedipus is dead, and his rivalrous sons have killed one another fighting for mastery of the city of Thebes.   Creon, now King of Thebes, has decreed that the insurgent brother who rose up against the city, Polynices, be deprived of the important rite of burial.  Antigone rebelliously contrives to bury him, incurring Creon’s wrath and risking dire punishment.

I knew that Anouilh’s Antigone had been written during World War II and produced in France as a protest against the German occupation, the censors not recognizing in the garb of a “classical” play that Creon’s dictatorship was a stand-in for the fascist occupation, and that Antigone stood for the spirit of resistance.  I didn’t expect, though, that to get the play past the censors, Anouilh had altered Antigone’s character.  Instead of the high-minded woman that she is in Sophocles’ play, challenging Creon with her brilliantly wrought arguments, here Antigone is quixotic, not principled.

Antigone’s statements of how she makes her decisions and why she acts as she does range from unclear to unconvincing.  I’ve heard her rationales in this play called “existential” but by the time Creon has earnestly, even desperately said everything he knows to save her from disaster and she ignores him, she seems just plain nutty.  Creon, on the other hand, and to my surprise, comes across as a sympathetic character, anguished by the conflict between what he thinks he ought to do for the safety of his city and his unwillingness to harm Antigone.

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi's Don Carlo in Fusion Theatre's Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Photo Jonathan Staff

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi’s Don Carlo: “If the Prince sleeps, the traitor is awake.” Photo Jonathan Staff

The sympathetic Creon brings us to a high point of this production– Paul Goodwin Groen, the magnificent bass, singing “Ella Giammai,” the aria sung by an equally distressed King Philppe II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  Omigosh.  What an experience, to hear this full, operatic bass not in a vast opera house but in the intimate setting of, yes, off-Broadway!  Groen’s interpretation of the aria, his acting, his strength and his pathos – again, seen close – are thrilling.  If there were no other reason to see this play – and there are many others – Groen’s “Ella Giammai” would be of itself worth all.

The acting is for the most part of high caliber.  In particular, the multi-talented and creative Eilin O’Dea brings the maximum of dramatic tension to the role of Antigone. Byron Singleton

L-R Byron Singleton as First Guard, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Jason Wirth, Music Director and Accompanist. Photo Jonathan Staff

combines down-to-earth self-interest with a touching sympathy in his role as First Guard, and with his fine tenor voice he provides a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Manrico’s aria, “Deserto Sulla Terra,” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  Sue Ellen Mandel is touching as the Nurse, and Igby Rigby is cleverly insinuating as the Page/Chorus – the young “innocent” boy who’s already wise to the world.  Music Director Jason Wirth provides strong accompaniment to the singing, and plays a solo, on an upright piano to the side of the stage.

I can imagine that some may find it a little jarring for Fusion Theatre to pull in operatic arias to Anouilh’s script – perhaps, one may say, rather than “borrowing,” the group should have a composer write the music specifically for this play.  That would be a great idea if there happens to be a Verdi around – one willing to do it on a shoestring.  The operatic music was  thought-provoking, enriching and a pleasure to hear, and did a good job of advancing the Fusion Theater’s point that there’s value of merging classical theater and opera.

After all, we don’t even know what the music was that accompanied Sophocles’ Antigone around 441 B.C. – but we know there was music!

Fusion Theatre’s Antigone plays at the Studio Theatre on Manhattan’s Theatre Row, West 42nd Street, through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Antigone cast. L-R Allison Threadgold as Ismene, Pauline Yeng as Messenger, David Gran as Haemon, Sue Ellen Mendel as Nurse, Eilin O’Dea as Antigone (foreground), Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, Igby Rigney as Page/Chorus, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Byron Singleton as First Guard. Photo Jonathan Staff

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston

Review | Prince of Players | Opera by Carlisle Floyd | New York Premier | Little Opera Theatre of NY

… what a difference a king makes …

In Prince of Players, a private, personal and intimate story – that of an actor thrown out of work by a King’s decree — plays out against a canvas of broad historical meaning.  Although I’ve seen thoughts to the contrary, I found it monumental, and Carlisle Floyd’s swelling, varied music, performed by a cast of fine singer-actors supported by a full orchestra fulfills and amplifies the strong emotions and large resonances.

We are in 1661, in the period of the restoration of King Charles II of England after the dictatorship of Cromwell and the Puritans – with both a capital and a small “p”.  The theater-loving King Charles II – following the latest French fashion — decrees that women’s roles must no longer be played by male actors, as they had been, but must now be played by women.

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston. Mezzotint, R. B. Parkes, engraver, R. Cooper, artist, perhaps after an original painting by Sir Peter Lely. From “An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber, new edn. by Robert W. Lowe, 1889

This may seem like a step in the direction of naturalism and perhaps of fair play, but it sure pulls the rug out from under the career of Edward Kynaston, a male Shakespearean actor of androgynous beauty who built his fame playing women’s roles, such as Desdemona.  A victim of collateral damage, he loses everything – career, livelihood, status, and love.  He’s thrown to the lowest levels of degradation but he claws his way back to triumph again on stage – to play Othello.

A particularly complex character, Margaret Hughes is an underling who comes to the fore, starting off as Kynaston’s dresser in the years of his success in playing women’s roles. She holds in her heart two passions impossible of fulfillment: a desire to act on stage, forbidden to women, and desire for Kynaston, whom she’s in love with while knowing he’s erotically drawn to men.  Charles’ decree turns her desire to act on stage into a real possibility:  seizing the day.  she rises  to become a fine and important actress, her success paralleling Kynaston’s fall from grace.  And, still in love with Kynaston, she uses her new empowerment to empower him.  She enables him to revise his great acting talent now to play successfully the roles open to him — male roles.  From having once played Desdemona, he now plays Othello.

The heart of the matter that comes with a surprise and gives this narrative an inspiring character is what we, and Kynaston, learn about Kynaston’s talent for acting.  It’s gender independent.  The question which at first seemed fundamental — will he play a female or male role? — turns out to be incidental in the face of his great artistic gift.  I found this moving in its operatic development (although I didn’t find Kynaston’s fundamental personality upheaval that came along with it convincing.)

I’m struck by close parallels in the story of Prince of Players and that of the Academy Award winning film, The Artist, of 2011, discussed here below.   While The Prince of Players takes us the world of 17th century British theater, The Artist takes us to the world of movie-making in 1927 when the new talkies were taking over from silent films. Valentin is a great silent film actor, but he’s over-confident of his star power and lacks confidence in his ability to use his voice as an actor so he refuses, like Kynaston, to even try to relearn his craft. Failing to adapt, he’s swept to the bottom of the barrel, as Kyaston had been, and is eclipsed by the success in the talking films of the young actress, Peppy, who had always loved him.  Peppy, like Margaret, in love with the great artist that she knows Valentin to be, finds a way around his pride, enabling him once again to rise and fulfill his great artistic gift.  (Unlikely, but worth mentioning – since the best known source for modern adaptations of the story of Edward Kynaston is Samuel Pepys, one wonders if the name Peppy in The Artist is an elaborate if obscure in-joke, pointing to sources.)

Larger roles in this production were double cast.  The cast in the performance I saw Saturday, February 25, 2017 were for the most part fine singers and always tone-perfect actors. Edward Kynaston was played by baritone Michael Kelly whose rich voice filled the ample Kaye Playhouse, and magnetic stage presence filled the full range of emotions in the part.  Soprano Maeve Hoglund was thrilling as a dramatic singer in the intricately drawn character of Margaret.  These two played off one another with crackling excitement, above all in the final intensely dramatic, suspenseful and cathartic final scene.

Prince of Players is based on a play made into a movie, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, both drawn loosely upon references to characters and incidents of the period, and on references to Edward Kynaston in Samuel Pepys’ diary.  The opera premiered at the Houston Grand Opera March of 2016, and, produced by The Little Opera Theatre of NY, played at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, in Manhattan, where I saw it, February 23 – 26, 2017.

Review | The Forgotten Woman | By Jonathan Tolins | Directed by Noah Himmelstein | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… opera with no music …

If you think you’re too fat or hate opera, maybe you’ll like this play about a fat but successful opera singer who isn’t so sure she likes opera either.  Otherwise …

Margaret is a woman with “issues” – she’s guilty about the demands of her career as an opera singer on her child, and suffers from stage fright, and above all she’s fat. But after a successful climb to the operatic top, the one thing she is not is “forgotten.” Instead, the title – and the play – pander to women who feel “forgotten” because they’re fat.  It also panders to people who find opera a terrible bore, and the emotional ins-and-outs are on the level of another kind of opera – soap.

On the bright side, Ashlie Atkinson in the role of Margaret is a vibrant performer and it’s fun to watch her cavort through this otherwise annoying play.

In preparation for her debut in the starring role at a major opera house, Margaret and her husband, Rudolph (Robert Stanton) are at a fancy hotel with obliging room service and an eager-to-please bell boy (Justin Mark).  She’s being courted by an eager PR rep Erik (Mark Junek), when an entertainment reporter, Steve (Darren Goldstein), comes to interview her for a big spread in his major newspaper.  Well, OK, I suppose “forgotten” could be about ”how you feel inside” but Margaret sure is getting a lot of attention.

It turns out she knows Steve – in fact he was her high school crush who co-starred with her in Hello, Dolly senior year, and the flame is not quite extinguished for her and, she assumes with not a lot to go on, for Steve.

It wouldn’t be right to reveal the resolution of the romantic conflict between (allegedly) handsome Steve, a “Philistine” who knows nothing about opera and could care less, and Rudolph, Margaret’s sensitive, music conductor husband with romantic issues of his own – not because that would spoil the suspense because there isn’t much.  By the same token, I won’t reveal whether Margaret is an absolutely fabulous success on her opening night and gets reviews of transcendent praise, or is a flop – take a guess.

Ashlie Atkinson is a comic talent and brings a terrific delivery to Margaret’s self-amused and ironic cracks about being fat.  Atkinson also conveys dramatic depth, rising above the clichés of the emotional events.  Her performance as a bouncy, down-to-earth, homey diva with a heavy body and dazzling red hair will stay with me.

Most of the laughs, though, are at the expense of opera.  Well, sure, opera – like books, movies, dance, etc.– is a matter of taste and if you happen to be caught in a lengthy one that’s not your type you can feel the enormous suffering Erick (Mark Junek) expresses in an energetically delivered verbal rush of hate-opera.  But the play’s ironic celebration of know-nothing – Steve-who-hates-opera becomes the big newspaper’s next opera critic – is unpleasant.

This is all in line with the play’s take that opera-goers don’t really like opera – they just take a cue from The New Yorker magazine that it’s “the thing to do.”   More of the snide nonsense that passes itself off as arch humor in The Forgotten Woman.

According to the program, author Tolins has written for Opera News and is a panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Radio Quiz so I guess he really likes opera – that is really likes opera as opposed to the cultural pseudos he describes, i.e. everyone else at the opera, who buy pricey tickets to suffer in the service of their supposed pretensions.

And of course it’s not believable that the newspaper, whose publisher Steve can’t name, makes Steve its opera critic at the death of its genuinely knowledgeable critic. Nor is it believable that on the eve of her great debut Margaret’s ready to quit it all to have a “normal life.  And – irony of ironies — while many women opera singers are slim, it’s a truism that many are really large in size, so fat,” though it’s central to the play, is a non-issue

We never encounter the enormous discipline, hours and hours of practice and learning and sustained ambition that it takes to become a great singer.   Margaret’s operatic success as almost accidental.

And what about the music?  It’s puzzling and disappointing that, except for a few background notes, and in an age of great recording effects, no music is incorporated into this play about an opera singer.  A play about an opera singer with no music … I don’t know — maybe the play isn’t snide, maybe Tollins really doesn’t like opera.

The world premier of The Forgotten Woman plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through June 19, 2016.   For more information and tickets, click here.

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Opera Review | Slow Dusk and Markheim by Carlisle Floyd | New Chamber Arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig | Little Opera Theatre of NY | 59E59 Theaters

What a wonderful evening of theater.  Two short American operas, narratives set to dramatic music, superbly performed.  One leaves thrilled and elated.

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Slow Dusk takes us from commonplace to ecstatic, to tragedy, from afternoon to dusk.  Aunt Sue is shelling peas on the porch of a farmhouse in the Carolinas when Jess comes in from the fields, we learn of their concern about their niece, Sadie, who’s seeing to much of Micah — his family belong to the Truelights and they belong to the Disciples, and anyhow she’s smart and he never finished eighth grade.  They’re wild for one another and agree to marry but — not family as in Romeo and Juliet — accident intervenes, as fast as it can in life.

This is Carlisle Floyd’s first opera based on his own short story:  the language is at times over simple but the

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

music is bold, strong, apt, and intensifies the drama, and the characterizations are both archetypal and realistic.  (I thought, Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms could use Carlisle Floyd’s music.)

The voices might not have carried to the last rows of the Metropolitan Opera house but in this medium sized theater they were overwhelming and very moving.  The acting, direction, costuming and setting are superb.  The impact is powerful.

Wow, am I glad I’m here!  I thought, almost dazed — what’s next?

Next came one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen.  Again it’s short, a lot happens , and you’re left breathless and elated.  Markheim, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes you to London 1880, and

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

Christmas Eve, when an elegant man, Markheim,  who has squandered his family fortune enters a pawn shop to raise cash — drug dealers will kill him if he doesn’t pay up.

Here, again, characterizations, narrative and music form a gripping whole.  A confrontation between the pawn dealer and Markheim doesn’t end well as Markheim, who’s spent his life digging himself into a hole goes in deeper.  A mysterious Stranger in evening clothes enters.  Now, I’ve seen some wonderful Devils in theater, from Don Juan in Hell to Faust:  this

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

is the Devil whose Hell I’d really consider.  He’s sly, smart, sophisticated, articulate and choreographically active.  With a Devil likethis, redemption’s a tough sell, though there is a kind of redemption …. with an awful lot of collateral damage.

The night I attended Marc Schreiner played the Stranger and he was so seductively charismatic I’d be reluctant to see anybody else in the part — what sheer fun! — and that goes for all the cast of both operas.   Yet, at the same time I’d like to see the other cast since every aspect of this production is so completely fulfilled I imagine they are equally outstanding.

Because there are two casts, I’m listing here the cast the night I attended:  Slow Dusk:  Aunt Sadie was mezzo-soprana Jennifer Roderer, Jess was baritone Alexander Charles Boyd, Sadie was soprana Sarah Beckham-Turner and Micah was tenor Bray Wilkins.  Markheim:  Josiah Creach (the pawnbroker) was tenor Scott Six, Markheim was bass-baritone Jeremy Milner, Tess (the shop girl) was soprano Marie Masters and A Stranger was tenor Marc Schreiner.  There are ensemble Christmas carolers.

Richard Cordova conducted the lavish fifteen-piece orchestra:  the richly inventive and dramatic music heightened the emotional content and filled the theater with beauty.

The human scale, the authenticity in the costumes and ambiance as well as in the acting, the set and lighting create an extraordinary “you can’t get enough of it” visual appeal.

Just listing the performers brings back their vivid characterizations and the joy of the entire production – the joy of excellence.  These operas and others of this Carlisle Floyd’s works are available on audio media but I haven’t located any videos of them.  I’d sure like to see as well as hear his two-act opera Susannah.

Slow Dusk and Markheim play at 59E59 Theater, in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) in a limited run through December 14, 2014.

Review | The Threepenny Opera | Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | Music by Kurt Weill | English Adaptation by Mark Blitzstein | Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke | Atlantic Theater Company

Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.

Opera Review | Seance on a Wet Afternoon | Opera with Music and Libretto by Stephen Schwartz | New York City Opera

I thought an opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, would likely be an exciting stretch for a talented musical theater composer and lyricist like Stephen Schwartz, author of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked, but that’s not how it turns out.  The singing and acting, especially that of Lauren Flanigan as the medium and Melody Moore as Rita Clayton, is on a high level and the two children, Bailey Grey as Adriana and Michael Kepler Meo as Arthur, are impressive, but everybody could use a better opera.

The medium, Myra Foster, with the aid of her husband, Bill, kidnaps a young girl, Adriana Clayton, with the idea of ultimately leading the authorities and parents, as if by spiritual intuition, to where she will deposit the still alive girl and garner a big ransom and recognition of her spiritual “gift.”  But kidnappings have a way of going awry, the Fosters keep Adriana quiescent with liberal doses of chloroform and eventually Myra suffocates her with a pillow.

That’s not the only dead child in Seance:  Myra takes directions from Arthur, her poltergeist son of about 8 years in a white space-travel type of suit whom, we eventually learn, was stillborn “without a face.”  Seance is very hard on children.  The young couple sitting next to me, with the wife pregnant, had the wits to leave at the end of the first Act and I’m glad they never heard, in Act II, that Arthur was born faceless.

Perhaps on some level anything can be transformed into significant art if some requisites are in play, as when emotions and motivations of the characters are expressed with depth, and the issues have a universal dimension but … Do we really need an opera about the abduction, chloroforming and murder of a child?  Many dramas hinge on the effect of a dead child on survivors, but that’s very different from a drama in which the focus is on a child’s abduction and murder.  Are there any other operas or plays focused on a fictional child murder in this way?  (I suppose Adriana is murdered in the screenplay by Brian Forbes based on the novel by Mark McShane, on both of which the opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon is based.)

The music is hybrid of operatic and show music but the mix tends to weaken each.  It’s surprising that, given the significant recognition Schwartz has achieved for his lyrics, the libretto of Seance is notably flat.  “Tell me you love me,” Myra says to Bill.  “Do you still love me?”  And Bill answers:  “Yes.”  And, “I still love you.”  There are also a lot of astonishingly tepid rhymes of the croon/moon variety, often as triplets.

Also — and how easily this could have been avoided — the plot movement is sloppy.  A frantic Mrs. Clayton persuades her resisting husband to come with her to ask Myra whether she has any spiritual intuitions about Adriana’s whereabouts, at which point the police Insector, who’s been standing in his “time is of the essence” posture sits down and Mrs. Clayton embarks on a lengthy aria.  Once the Inspector has Myra under arrest, instead of taking her off in a squad car, he takes her for a promenade, during which he leaves the stage so she can engage with a batch of paparazzi — and meet up with Arthur.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon plays at the Koch Theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center through May 1.

Review | Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | World Premiere | Flea Theater

Kaspar Hauser is an opera about a “feral child” who turned up on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1833;  its music, focus on a world-battered individual, melodrama, cynical stream, and terrific sensory overload take us right back to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill:  think Threepenny Opera.

At his first appearance among the people of Nuremberg, Kaspar is wobbly legged because, according to his account which is represented in the opera’s stunningly choreographed beginning, he grew up in a dungeon.  Awkward and with little speech–he’s grown to teen age without proper human contact–he seems to them like an idiot.  We see him sitting autistic-like, repetitively rolling his little horse back and forth.  Quickly, though, he achieves great fame as an oddity and object of pity.  Much as in Truffaut’s film, The Wild Child, about a true feral child, a professor takes him in to study and teach, aided by a loving woman, the professor’s mother.  Throughout, the opera conceives this wide-eyed beautiful boy abruptly thrown into the real world as an innocent, somewhat Christ-like, while enemies are out to get him for their nefarious reasons.  The gullible crowd sways back and forth at the slightest suggest between adoring him and persecuting him, but he’s actually done in by upper class forces that want him out of the way (because he might really be a child of noble birth who was sent away to die in infancy, etc.)

The production, placed in something of a long narrow pit below the level of the audience, is magnificent.  Chiaroscuro lighting creates a furtive Brechtian world of fickle fate.  The actors, many of the Bats, the Flea’s wonderful young resident company, are beautifully costumed and choreographed, often caught strobe-like in moments of grotesque expressions, see photo below, like something out of Bosch’s Christ Mocked (follow link for photo).  Behind it, in front, all around–and loud–is the percussive, mass sung, growing Weill beat.  Only a few of the singers have operatic voices, but all sing well enough for the small theater, further baffled by placing the five members of the orchestra behind a curtain that spans the entire stage.  One would have liked the chance to applaud the orchestra but they didn’t come from behind the curtain to take a bow.

Kaspar Hauser is about a victim, in personality as well as in fact, and the passivity of this central character is a fundamental dramatic weakness.  Everything happens to him.  The other characters are all also oddly lacking in volition.  The professor who takes him in gets “tired”.  The professor’s mother tries to protect Kaspar but not hard enough to achieve anything.  His real mother sings sadly but with absolutely no thought of finding him.  The competitive “bad” mother behind Kaspar’s childhood abduction uses somebody else to try to get the teen-age Kaspar out of the way.  Her agent fails, and then seems unsure of what he wants to achieve about the boy.  Here we really part from Brecht, and his passionately motivated, determined character creations.

Still and all, for its outstanding production values, and strong musical and theatrical heritage, this is quite a show.   Kaspar Hauser  plays at The Flea Theater in Tribeca, NYC, through March 28

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén