In Review > North America

The Mother of Us All

NEW YORK CITY
Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
12/11/13

In Review Mother of us All Hdl 314
The Mother of Us All at MSM, with Margaret Newcomb (Lillian Russell), Hamilton, Megan Samarin (Anne) and Devlin
© Carol Rosegg 2014

A capacity audience at the first performance of the Manhattan School of Music's Mother of Us All on December 11 testified to the enduring fascination — and relevance — of an opera, created in 1947, that may once have seemed an exercise in quirkiness. 

"Men are afraid of women," the main character, Susan B. Anthony, tells her partner near the end of this work, as if Gertrude Stein — author of the words, who died in 1946 — had lived to witness the sexism rampant today, from Afghanistan and Chad to the American heartland. From today's vantage point, Stein's libretto, which includes African–American mute characters, seems also to have inspired later American playwrights' and composers' explorations of their country's troubled history. 

The opera remains riveting, too, in the lightness and wit of its approach to serious themes such as the struggle for women's suffrage. Preaching would soon pall, but Stein's playfulness, surprises and absurdities, like the Mozartean clockwork of so much of Virgil Thomson's all-American music, have a tonic effect, especially in their ability to keep the listener off guard. 

Manhattan School of Music mounted the opera in a tasteful, streamlined production. Erhard Rom's stage pictures focused effectively on just a few iconic objects — pillars, a flag and a copy of Picasso's portrait of Stein — and Tracy Dorman contributed attractive period costumes with comic flair (including the garb for glamorous Lillian Russell). Director Dona D. Vaughn maintained the fluid movement essential to this large-cast work and relished its diverse moods.

Under conductor Steven Osgood, the school's ingratiating performance on opening night (with two shows to follow) capitalized on the stageworthiness of a real ensemble opera — and revealed some of its treacherous challenges too. The student cast was notable for apt characterizations and effective timing. At its center, in the rigorous role of suffragette Anthony, stood gifted mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin, a first-year master's-degree candidate at the school. With incisive diction and supple musical phrasing, Devlin enacted the character's dedication, wit and occasional frustration. At times, the high tessitura of this role (for dramatic soprano, according to the score) appeared to challenge mezzo Devlin's focus and pitch, but she compensated with warmth in the lower register and was truly moving at the opera's anthem-like finale. This beautifully staged tableau placed Anthony alone in a monumental setting not unlike the Lincoln Memorial, as a statue that remains a living woman.

Osgood's firm control held the forces of orchestra and stage together without lagging. The evening started with a welcome transparency, which allowed the text to come through with chamber-opera clarity — but that fine balance was not maintained consistently. Support was uneven: there was fine work from the chorus, but in the orchestra the all-too-prominent brasses could not match the high level of the woodwind playing.

The characters, nearly thirty in number, were clearly differentiated in costuming and individual quirks. Standouts included tenor Alexander Frankel, who projected clearly as the hilarious Jo the Loiterer; Gina Perregrino as a fluent, lively Indiana Elliot, who wants to marry Jo without taking his name; Kasia Borowiec as the charming Angel More; Addison Hamilton's appealing Constance Fletcher; and Scott Russell's stern, imposing Daniel Webster. Also excellent were James Ludlum, Carlton Moe, Thomas Mulder, Margaret Newcomb, Megan Samarin and Chad Sonka. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6