In Review > North America

Champion (6/21/13), The Kiss (6/22/13), Il Tabarro & Pagliacci (6/23/13), The Pirates of Penzance (6/22/13)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

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James Robinson's world-premiere production of Blanchard's first opera, with Victor Ryan Robertson (Benny Paret), Orth, Allicock, Woodley (on platform) and Graves
© Ken Howard 2013
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Jones and Graves, above, in Champion at OTSL
© Ken Howard 2013
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Winters as Vendulka in OTSL's Kiss
© Ken Howard 2013

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis continued its long history of premieres this season with Champion, the maiden operatic venture of jazz composer Terence Blanchard. The piece (seen June 21) chronicles the life of Emile Griffith, the St. Thomas-born welterweight world champion whose career was haunted by two demons. One was his homosexuality — anathema in the macho world of pro boxing. The other was the 1962 knockout punch that resulted in the death of Benny "Kid" Paret. Griffith never forgave himself and never quite recovered the ferocity the sport demands. 

Blanchard and his librettist, Michael Cristofer, have taken a non-chronological approach to the material, mixing incidents from Griffith's brilliant heyday with scenes of the impoverished, punch-drunk older man, struggling to understand his troubled past. Flashbacks to St. Thomas show him as a plucky ten-year-old, abandoned by his prostitute mother to the care of a sadistic aunt. The result is less an unfolding drama than a two-act fantasia on themes from Griffith's life. This is probably the tactic best suited to Blanchard's technique, at least at this stage of his development as an opera composer. He has definitely written a "numbers" opera: the individual situations bring forth riff-like bursts of invention that develop until they run have their natural course. The music takes on the jagged intervals and dissonant counterpoint of latter-day jazz at one moment, then evokes the heart-on-sleeve emotionality of a Broadway anthem the next. But it never for a moment feels like pastiche: the opera unfolds in a single, compelling compositional voice. 

Still, the drama doesn't move through the music. Key plot points are conveyed in dialogue. Tellingly, the work's climax — when Paret's grown son clasps the older Griffith in a forgiving embrace — transpires in silence. And given its essentially static nature, the work is too long. The various conflicts in Griffith's life are all established in Act I; Act II has its share of dramatically arid stretches. I hope one day to see Champion in a shortened version that will allow Blanchard's very real achievement to shine even more brilliantly.

It is hard to imagine a better-cast performance than the one OTSL delivered. The performance was a triumph for its two central performers, Aubrey Allicock as Griffith in his championship days and Arthur Woodley as his older, diminished self. Allicock's lyric bass-baritone radiated the enthusiasm of youth, Woodley's bass the weathered sadness of old age, but the two performances were precisely aligned: these were quite palpably two incarnations of the same character. The sweet, clear singing of Jordan Jones, a ten-year-old boy soprano from St. Louis, embodied the trusting, ingenuous nature of the young Emile.

Griffith's morally ambiguous mother was sung by Denyce Graves. Her voice has unraveled since her days as a Met Carmen and Dalila, but she used even its rough spots to find the blues in Blanchard's melodic lines. The role of Howie Albert, Griffith's trainer, alternates between speech and song. Robert Orth used both modes to create a sharply etched portrayal of a man balancing opportunism with compassion. Meredith Arwady played Kathy Hagen, the owner of a gay bar; her bawdy entrance number, "Welcome to Hagen's Hole," probably calls for a more purely "pop" technique than Arwady has at her disposal, but she nonetheless nailed the role's anything-goes high spirits. As Luis, the older Griffith's adopted son and caretaker, Brian Arreola was tenderness personified.

The production, by James Robinson, OTSL's artistic director, felt so aligned with the piece that one was scarcely aware of "direction" at all. In the opera's more ebullient moments the stage pulsated with movement (Seàn Curran contributed the choreography, as he did for the season's three other offerings), but when called for, the staging had a still, focused intensity. Allen Moyer's set design reduced the scenic elements to their essentials, relying on Greg Emetaz's video projections to provide atmospheric color but creating a theatrically charged arena for Champion's action. The estimable George Manahan led a taut, disciplined performance. OTSL's orchestra is drawn from the St. Louis Symphony, noted for its commitment to American music; here, the playing was impressive not just for the tightness of ensemble you'd expect from members of a top-tier orchestra but for the musicians' mastery of the jazz idiom.

The orchestra made a more equivocal effect, though, in the season's other novelty, Smetana's Kiss. I had never heard this opera before the June 22 performance, but I would imagine that its effect depends on a sharper demarcation between buoyant dance rhythms and lyrical outpourings than conductor Anthony Barrese's afforded: it was as if a blanket had been thrown over the music. 

The Kiss is an odd piece that needs more persuasive advocacy than it received here. It is built on the thinnest of plots: the heroine, Vendulka, refuses to let her fiancé, Lukáš, kiss her. The two quarrel, and Vendulka (recruited by her aunt!) heads off to the mountains to become a smuggler. (I found myself puzzled at why a respectable village girl would choose this particular line of work.) She soon sees the error of her ways, and the two lovers reunite at the final curtain for, yes, a kiss. 

Michael Gieleta's production (first seen at the 2010 Wexford Festival) was as fuzzy as the music-making. The sliding wooden panels of James Macnamara's handsome unit set evoked the rustic setting, but the action unfolding in front of it was diffuse: it was hard to tell from moment to moment whether we were watching a tender romance, a broad comedy or a satire. The trouble started during the jaunty prelude — here staged, bizarrely, as the soundtrack to a funeral procession. David Pountney's unmusical translation (OTSL presents all its operas in English) compounded the problem, making it difficult for the singers to phrase their music expressively. 

The cast member who fared best was Corinne Winters, whose intriguingly dark lyric soprano and Natalie Wood good looks made her an impressive Vendulka. Tenor Garrett Sorenson's Lukáš was strongly sung but unromantic. The production saddled bass-baritone Matthew Burns, as Palouck, Vendulka's father, with crotchety-old-man business that effectively torpedoed his performance. Matthew Worth played Tomeš, Lukáš's friend and brother-in-law; despite Worth's dulcet baritone and handsome mien, the character emerged as a rather starchy fellow. Elizabeth Batton brought a plummy mezzo and a game demeanor to the role of Martinka, Vendulka's aunt, without ever quite explaining what this baffling character was upto. Fabio Toblini's costume scheme for The Kiss oddly mixed traditional peasant garb with mid-twentieth-century street-wear. 

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Pagliacci in St. Louis, with Kaduce and Brubaker
© Ken Howard 2013

OTSL's double-bill of Il Tabarro and Pagliacci (seen June 23) took a similar but far more evocative gambit: Emily Rebholz's costuming placed both operas roughly in the years of the neorealist movement in Italian film, itself arguably influenced by verismo. Ron Daniels's production made a persuasive case for the pairing with Tabarro rather than the traditional Cavalleria Rusticana. The monochrome backdrop for the Puccini opera, by Riccardo Hernandez, seemed like an embodiment of the fog-haunted score itself. It remained up during the opening of Pagliacci, during which a prancing corps of clowns gazed at it in bewilderment; at the Prologue's conclusion, they tore it down, revealing a crimson circus-tent interior. We were now in a new — but neighboring — realm. 

Amanda Holden's translations of both operas had some of the limitations of Pountney's Kiss: the original Italian texts allow singers to achieve more purely lyrical effects. But the theatrical immediacy of Holden's work was ample compensation — never more so than in Tabarro, when Michele, after his duet with Giorgetta, spat out "That slut!" As if taking their cue from Holden, the performers (abetted by the alert support of conductor Ward Stare) rendered both pieces as compact, thrillingly dramatic pieces of theater — surely what the composers intended. 

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Mix and Pulley, Michele and Giorgetta at OTSL
© Ken Howard 2013

Robert Brubaker had originally been scheduled to sing both lead tenor roles; by the time I got to St. Louis, Michael Hayes had taken over his Tabarro duties as Luigi. He was discernibly older than Tim Mix's Michele, a factor that affected the dynamic of the piece: both Hayes's Luigi and Emily Pulley's Giorgetta seemed drawn into adultery less by youthful passion than by sheer weariness with their unhappy lot. Neither singer produced a lush, Italianate sound, but both made the lovers' plight tangible and touching.

Mix, doubling as Michele and Tonio, was more convincing in the first piece, where his downtrodden demeanor told us all we needed to know about the sadness of his marriage. His lurching, leering Tonio was just a wee bit hammy, but Pagliacci's doomed husband and wife were brilliantly realized by Brubaker and Kelly Kaduce. In the acoustically lively, 987-seat Loretto-Hilton Center, Brubaker's steely tenor rang out with stunning impact: the sound was truly scaryKaduce was as complex a Nedda as I've ever seen — by turns pitiable, alluring, amorous and vixenish. One could understand how easily this woman could drive her husband into a paroxysm of jealousy. Troy Cook's smoothly sung Silvio was less a rural Lothario than an ordinary young man overwhelmed with passion. Matthew DiBattista's rendering of Harlequin's serenade was more earthbound than the norm, but his Beppe was quite plausibly a hard-working member of the troupe.  

Even though OTSL's Pirates of Penzance, seen at the June 22 matinée, was a thoroughgoing romp, its scrupulous musical execution placed the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece squarely in the bel canto tradition. James Schuette's primary-colored set, evoking both the circus and the music hall, invited us in for an afternoon of delight. Curran here served as director as well as choreographer, devising business that mined the work's abundant sense of play without ever overwhelming Gilbert's own brilliant comic invention. 

In Matthew Plenk and Deanna Breiwick, this Pirates had a Frederic and Mabel who could plausibly have stepped into L'Elisir d'Amore. Maria Zifchak, looking for all the world like Downton Abbey's Mrs. Patmore, made Ruth a truly comic figure by presenting her plight with utter seriousness. The same could not be said, alas, of Hugh Russell, busily signaling that Major General Stanley was a quite a droll fellow, and applying shtick to "Softly sighing to the river" that disrupted its enchantingly lyrical line. Bradley Smoak managed to balance virility and goofiness as the Pirate King, and Jason Eck was properly orotund and properly deadpan as the Sergeant of Police.

Conductor Ryan McAdams occasionally lingered in moments where more forward propulsion might have been called for, as if contemplating the work's melodic bounty. But it was salutary to hear the great score, too often approximated, entrusted to an orchestra of the caliber of the pit band at OTSL. spacer

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2