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In Review > North America

Die Liebe der Danae (8/7/11), Bitter Sweet (8/13/11)

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON
Bard SummerScape

In Review Bard Danae hdl 1 1111
Pure Gold: Honeywell and Miller in Bard's Liebe der Danae
© Cory Weaver 2011
In Review Bittersweet lg 1111
Squitieri, Bard's Bitter Sweet Manon
© Cory Weaver 2011

Few Americans have heard performances of Richard Strauss's penultimate opera Die Liebe der Danae, a work whose history and reception were complicated by World War II. Completed in 1940, Danae was brought to the dress-rehearsal stage at Salzburg in 1944, only to have its scheduled performances canceled when the Nazis closed all theaters within the Third Reich in the wake of the plot to assassinate Hitler. Danae finally saw public performance, under Clemens Krauss, at the 1952 Salzburg Festival, with Annelies Kupper in the lead. Los Angeles heard it in 1964, Santa Fe in 1982. Before Bard SummerScape mounted it this year, the New York area had heard only concert readings, led by Eve Queler (1982, with Rosalind Plowright) and Leon Botstein (2000, with Lauren Flanigan). 

The opera has a dodgy, repetitive libretto by Joseph Gregor, who furnished a shorter "power and riches versus human love" plot to Strauss's 1938 Daphne. Happily, the Bard Danae realization was pretty much a triumph, not least for Botstein, who achieved his finest operatic podium results to date in the prolix (lots of outtakes from Frau ohne Schatten and Daphne) but often lovely and certainly challenging score. The American Symphony Orchestra brass had a field day on August 7, the fifth and last show; Botstein proved much more considerate as to pit–stage balance and much more varied of color and dynamics than he sometimes has been in the past.

The sets by Rafael Viñoly and Mimi Lien used photographs of the Wall Street Sub-Treasury, New York Harbor and (finally) the city seen from the modest beach of Sandy Hook — all inspired transpositions of the specified classical venues — and the shower-of-gold and turning-to-gold effects were strikingly handled. Jessica Jahn's costumes were dead-on, especially those for the Four Queens and their consorts served up by Gregor's frankly half-baked libretto. The queens, Jupiter's former lovers Leda (Rebecca Ringle), Semele (Aurora Sein Perry), Alkmene (Jamie Van Eyck) and Europa (Camille Zamora), are the (initially) gold-loving princess Danae's cousins-in-law. Director Kevin Newbury and Jahn presented them as The Real Housewives of Hellas, prancing and fussing and radiating self-satisfaction: they were very welcome every time they appeared, and Sein Perry's lovely, pure timbre and Ringle's striking power and depth proved quite impressive. The cuckolded husbands were attired like candidates too hopeless to be helped by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; cheesy, clashing '90s "resort wear" prevailed. Dennis Petersen showed his acting experience and vocal power as Danae's impecunious father, Pollux; one wished the excellent Sarah Jane McMahon (Xanthe) had more to sing.

Newbury and Botstein were fortunate in their three leads, who offered strong work. Meagan Miller is making a name for herself in Europe. Her evident assets include a large, shining soprano of considerable range and a tall, handsome, confident stage presence. Her art has come a long way since I last heard her, in a 2001 Syracuse Faust; the voice was very pleasing and often impressive in Danae's tough music, though without having (yet) sufficient warmth and consistent steadiness in the upper flights. One looks forward to hearing more of this very gifted singer as her American career moves into high gear. 

When I heard Roger Honeywell sing Leukippos in City Opera's 2004 Daphne, I thought this talented Canadian tenor was approaching vocal suicide; it was great to be proved wrong and hear him cope so capably with the equally high-flying but much longer role of Midas, the mule-driver turned gold-dispensing king eventually cast back to poverty by Jupiter for daring to fall in love with the god's intended conquest, Danae, who returns her fellow mortal's affection. Honeywell retains his stage ease, and his tenor, if not liquid in sound, negotiated the murderous tessitura with aplomb. 

Jupiter is a huge bass-baritone sing, designed for one vocal titan (Hans Hotter) and given its public premiere by another (Paul Schoeffler). Carsten Wittmoser has more limited, soft-grained tonal resources and scope, sounding apt for such smaller Strauss roles as the First Nazarene and Lamoral; he does mostly bass parts, but in Bard's intimate Fisher Theater he certainly tackled the part's climactic high Gs with power and flair. His inflections were telling and subtle. Beyond that he made a casually sexy, compelling and complex chief god, in a concept that seemed to be Billionaire Designer: Danae became a cover girl for fragrances, her visage on huge ads all over the Gotham-based set. Audiences have already seen such Design House concepts of late (a Philadelphia Roméo, a Boston Cardillac), and certain other of Newbury's deployments — the mirror-shaded security men, Mercury (tenor Jud Perry, coping) as a punked-out bike messenger — are hardly novel. But the overall approach worked extremely well: Jupiter's monologue of renunciation and the final image of Danae and Midas happily stargazing from the hood of their beat-up AMC Pacer both proved very moving. I wish there were a New York City Opera capable of taking this fine production into its repertory. 

Noël Coward's 1929 Bitter Sweet, heard in the more intimate Theater Two (Aug. 13), fizzled; it was not a catastrophe like last year's staging of Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier but an interesting if wordy show rather misdirected. A big West End hit, Bitter Sweet had two Broadway runs and sparked two films. The story line is framed as a recollection: Sarah, Lady Shayne (Siân Phillips, a supremely classy presence with inimitable readings, if not much of a singer) conjures up her youthful past — elopement with an impoverished Viennese composer, his death in a duel and her subsequent career as his posthumous interpreter — in order to guide a young woman, Dolly (appealingly played by Marianne Rendon), who is trying to choose between a stuffed shirt and an impecunious musician. To make sense in terms both of social mores and (even more important) of the musical genres evoked, the story needs its specified time period — Hapsburg 1870s and, for the frame, 1920s. Here, director Michael Gieleta pushed the waltz-laden center forward to a louche 1920s, with London's Mod 1960s for the frame. One might as well try to start the clock on Show Boat sixty years later: the musical numbers — to say nothing of plot elements such as sword dueling — simply made no sense in context.

The spacious, handsome set (Adrian W. Jones) and all of Gregory Gale's various period costumes were fantastic; everything looked very good. But — since Gieleta's recipe for evoking nostalgia seemed to involve glacial pacing — the dialogue was delivered so haltingly that the two-and-three-quarter-hours show seemed longer than Siegfried. Sarah Miller's vibrato-heavy top grated a bit as the young Sarah; she was more convincing, musically and dramatically, as the later widow/muse. As her true love, Carl Linden, William Ferguson was saddled with a "Herr Schultz" accent, but he sang his music with great charm and musicality, especially in a cappellaflights. Amanda Squitieri — subtle yet hilarious in expression, singing beautifully in legit as well as popular styles, riveting to watch — gave a terrific performance as the café chanteuse Manon. Sign her up for Sally Bowles (or Musetta). Joshua Jeremiah made little impact as the loutish Captain Lutte who occasions the tragedy, but many of the young music-theater actors showed flair. Elana Gleason displayed a particularly beautiful soprano as one of the "London Girls"; the three "Vienna girls" (Jennifer Feinstein, Amanda Joy Loth, Amanda Yachechak) executed their sub-Fosse routines with aplomb. The Four Footmen (Alex Kasser, James Lombardino, Mike Longo, Brian Maxsween) tackled their tasks (which included unsettlingly fey minstrelsy in "Green Carnations") with spirit. James Bagwell and a reduced orchestra coped well with Coward's multifarious demands. spacer

DAVID SHENGOLD

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