In Review > North America

"27" (6/19/14), The Elixir of Love (6/21/14), Dialogues of the Carmelites (6/20/14), The Magic Flute (6/21/14)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theater of Saint Louis

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A scene from “27,” with Brevick, Greenhalgh, Blythe, Futral and Lebow
© Ken Howard 2014
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Blythe and Futral, Stein and Toklas at OTSL
© Ken Howard 2014

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon cannily tailored his first Opera Theater of Saint Louis commission to the circumstances of its premiere. "27," with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, marked the OTSL debut of Stephanie Blythe, and with his star in mind, Gordon chose as his subject Gertrude Stein — a historical figure whose force of personality jibes with Blythe's supremely confident stage persona. (The title refers to 27 rue de Fleurus, the address of the Paris home that Stein shared with Alice B. Toklas from 1910 to 1938.) The work, seen at the third performance of the run, on June 19, flanks its two central roles, Stein and Toklas (played here by Elizabeth Futral), with a trio of male singers (tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik) playing the artists, writers and soldiers who had roles in Stein's life — a shrewd exploitation of OTSL's Gerdine Young Artists program. 

Rather than forging a straightforward dramatic narrative, the creators have conjured up a fantasia of imagined scenes from Stein and Toklas's shared life. Their strategy inevitably calls to mind Stein's own free-form operatic collaborations with Virgil Thomson — particularly The Mother of Us All, with its strong, stubborn central figure. Vavrek's use of repetition ("Wives who aren't wives / Wives who are the wives of geniuses") is clearly Stein-influenced, and Gordon's music takes a cue from Thomson's tonality-plus-tabasco methodology. But Gordon's avoidance of long-span melody here resembles a compositional tic: the music momentarily flirts with lyrical outpouring, then quickly retreats, as if in fear of tipping over into banality. 

"27" is weighed down by the history it presents. It presupposes our interest in Stein and her circle without supplying explanation or dramatic impetus of its own. The arguments between Gertrude and her brother Leo, for instance, would be meaningless to anyone without grounding in the details of Stein's biography. As Stein, Toklas and the members of their circle went through their paces, I was unable to banish the niggling question "What's at stake?" 

Blythe was, as always, a riveting presence, fully supplying the stage magnetism needed for a star vehicle. The musical effect she made was more equivocal, both because Gordon gave her so little good material and because her enormous sound too often overwhelmed the thousand-seat Loretto-Hilton Center. Futral, her voice harsh and thin, did not succeed in bringing the under-written role of Toklas to life; she seemed to be relying throughout on a bouncy stage energy. The men were all fine — three stageworthy performers with strong, fresh voices. (I did question the decision, in Act I, to present them in drag as a chorus of artists' wives — a scene that was neither illuminating nor funny.) Conductor Michael Christie maintained tight ensemble, and director James Robinson moved the performers deftly through Allen Moyer's simple but eye-filling set. But they couldn't create musical or theatrical interest where there was none to be found. 

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Barbera and Biller, Nemorino and Adina in Saint Louis
© Ken Howard 2014

Robinson's gifts could be discerned more clearly in his well-traveled production of The Elixir of Love, originally mounted in 2007 for Opera Colorado and seen subsequently at several other U.S. companies. Stage director for the OTSL premiere of the show was Jose Maria Condemi, in his company debut. This Elixir locates Donizetti's comedy in the early-twentieth-century small-town America of The Music Man. Moyer's scenery consisted of a festive gazebo set against bucolic, rolling hills; the blonde curls of Susanna Biller, the production's Adina, turned her into a dead ringer for the young Shirley Jones. Nemorino was the proprietor of an ice-cream truck, Dulcamara a carnival barker, Belcore a doughboy seeking recruits. The June 21 matinée audience responded to the piece as if to a favorite musical comedy, wowed anew by its abundant melody and warm sentiment.

The cast's standout was René Barbera, a sweet, ardent, clarion-voiced Nemorino, and the afternoon's musical highlight, naturally enough, was "Una furtiva lagrima" — here rendered as "One tear she tried to hide from me." The English translation (credited to Kelley Rourke), rather than impeding the bel canto line, made the aria's emotions visceral; at its climax, when Barbera came to the foot of the stage, arms spread wide, and sang of his passion, music and meaning became one. The ovation that followed was not only a recognition of Barbera's superb rendition but a celebration of Nemorino's victory in love. 

Patrick Carfizzi was a wily Dulcamara, ably articulating the huckster's English patter. Tim Mix was more successful at depicting Belcore's self-regard than at etching the fine details of the music. Leela Subramaniam, extraordinarily pretty, brought a dewy soprano to Giannetta's brief aria. Biller painted her Adina in one bright color: the role has more depth and variety than the soprano's unremittingly pert portrayal suggested. In keeping with the production, conductor Stephen Lord's musical reading emphasized the work's comedy rather than its veins of sweet melancholy; the bountiful energy rising from the pit seemed to spring from the excitement of young love itself.

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Kaduce and Arwady in Guarino's OTSL staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites
© Ken Howard 2014

In the program note for her production of Dialogues of the Carmelites (seen June 20), director Robin Guarino wrote of attempting to stage the opera in "a spare, clear and minimalist setting." Unfortunately, Andrew Lieberman's unit set was nothing of the sort. A clunky one-story wood pavilion, wheeled back and forth from scene to scene, it only occasionally suggested the indicated locales and often got in the way of the drama, sometimes quite literally: during Madame Lidoine's opening scene, I found myself looking at a wooden column, instead of Christine Brewer's face. At the opera's conclusion, the nuns, rather than marching off to their doom, plopped themselves down one by one on the structure's wooden benches — a singularly ineffective rendering of what should be a surefire coup de théâtre. 

Guarino's virtues as a director could be seen in the detailed, focused performances she drew from her talented singers. Chief among these was Kelly Kaduce as Blanche — by turns proud, vulnerable, hysterical and heroic, and luminous throughout. Kaduce's soprano is not in itself a particularly distinctive instrument, but she was masterly at using her voice to sharply theatrical effect and making us attend to each step of Blanche's spiritual journey. 

Brewer did not appear to be in prime vocal or physical health: she moved unsteadily, and her voice sounded notably pinched on top. Still, the generosity of her tone and the breadth of her phrasing conveyed the intensity of Lidoine's commitment to her calling. Meredith Arwady's stunning contralto may have evinced too much rude good health to plausibly render the torments of the dying Old Prioress, but her sheer vocal presence, along with her crystalline presentation of Joseph Machlis's English text, allowed Arwady to get at the dramatic core of Croissy's scenes. Daveda Karanas, as Mother Marie, had little warmth in her tone or her presence; she conveyed the nun's authority but not her humanity. The role of Sister Constance can sometimes register as a bit of soubrette-ish comic relief, but Ashley Emerson's textured portrayal showed the young novice undertaking a quest as probing as Blanche's. Ward Stare, in the pit, allowed Poulenc's "dialogues" to unfold with the naturalness of human speech.

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The Magic Flute at OTSL, with de Sévigné and Zharoff
© Ken Howard 2014

If Guarino's Carmelites was an equivocal success, Isaac Mizrahi's production of The Magic Flute was a mess from start to finish. Mozart's opera, with its mixture of fantasy and philosophical inquiry, is not easy to bring off; Mizrahi chose to ignore its complexities and use it as a vehicle for wall-to-wall whimsy, as if hoping to perpetuate the humor of the slaves' "magic bells" dance throughout the opera. Dancers dressed as birds or fuzzy little animals pranced on for nearly every number. In his program note, Mizrahi informed us that we were watching the action unfold on a Hollywood soundstage from the 1950s; without the note, the production concept would not have been apprehensible. It explained why Tamino and Pamina were dressed in the style of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, and why they were stalked by dream-ballet dance doubles. It never became clear, though, what possible relevance any of this might have to poor old Zauberflöte. Worse, the soundstage setting, rather than allowing Tamino to embark on a voyage of discovery, fixed him in one place, obliterating the dramatic impetus of the piece. John Heginbotham's tone-deaf choreography smothered Mozart's music every chance it could get. 

At the June 21 evening performance, Sean Panikkar sang boldly but with little elegance as Tamino. Elizabeth Zharoff, as Pamina, revealed a piquant, woodwind-like soprano that unfortunately shrouded the words of Andrew Porter's translation in mist. Levi Hernandez, as Papageno, had no more than the usual success in drawing laughs from the bird-catcher's schtick, but his baritone was solidly appealing, and he sang with a lieder singer's attention to detail. Claire de Sévigné cut a glamorous figure as a Norma Desmond-ish Queen of the Night; her traversal of the role's higher reaches was impressive, if not always squarely on pitch. Matthew Anchel was a dull-voiced Sarastro, diffident in his stage manner. Matthew DiBattista was a less grotesque Monostatos than the norm, confident that he had the makings of a romantic hero. As in Elixir and Dialogues of the Carmelites, chorus master Robert Ainsley succeeded in blending the strong voices of the company's Gerdine Young Artists into a true ensemble. The chief musical distinction of the performance came from conductor Jane Glover's lucid, balanced reading, but the dreadful business onstage undid her good efforts at every turn. spacer

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3