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The Secret Agent
Burton; Bearden; Center for Contemporary Opera, Jobin. English text. Albany Records (Troy) 1450-51 (2)
Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent is routinely ranked as one of the great novels of the last century. I had high hopes for this chamber-opera adaptation, with music by Michael Dellaira and libretto by J. D. McClatchy, in a production by the Center for Contemporary Opera. Unfortunately, Conrad's compelling and ever-timely topics become diluted in a talky prose libretto that is ill-served by its meandering, mostly undramatic score. Dellaira is an imaginative composer but not a compelling storyteller. Some of the sounds are original, but there's little that's suspenseful or intriguing. The opening waltz tempo places us at a party, but it sounds like a fairly drab one, and nothing about it says London in the 1890s. The exposition lumbers at a slightly less than engrossing pace, occasionally enlivened by skillful instrumental writing that is more interesting than the vocal lines. The opening scene in Act II, also at a party, unfolds with a performance of "Erlkönig" in the background. This proves to be a questionable choice, since the strands of Schubert are more exciting than most of the rest of the score, which suffers by comparison. The piece does spring to life at some key moments, but these oases of dynamism are too few and far between.
The principal role of Verloc, a German spy living in London, is sung by baritone Scott Bearden, whose delivery, though admirably clear, is monochromatic and uninflected. Soprano Amy Burton, as Verloc's wife, Winnie, provides some welcome vibrancy with both her sunny timbre and her naturally flowing musical phrases. Winnie is also the only character with a semblance of an emotional trajectory: in the final scene (and in the only conventional aria), when Burton sums up the tragic events as "smashed in blood and dirt," suddenly we have a sense of the dramatic stakes that had heretofore been missing.
Several supporting roles are well characterized and sung with full ownership, particularly Verloc's gang of anarchic miscreants — Matt Boehler as the ominous, bomb-toting Professor; Matthew Garrett as the excitable Ossipon, who is secretly in love with Winnie; and Aaron Theno as the socialite-charming ex-convict Michaelis. On the side of the law, David Neal as the Police Commissioner and Jason Papowitz as Chief Inspector Heat hit their marks with convincing authority. Jonathan Blalock, though saddled with stammering and speech impediments, earns our sympathy as Stevie, Winnie's adored, learning-disabled younger brother, whose accidental tragic death is the fulcrum of the piece. The thirteen hardworking members of the orchestra — all top-flight New York freelancers — have some juicy material to sink their teeth into. Conductor Sara Jobin is clearly on top of the proceedings; the periodic plodding seems more the fault of the material than of the performances.
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