In Review > North America

The MediumOf Mice and Men

PHOENICIA, NY
Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice
8/1/15

IN SIX YEARS, the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice has become a vibrant, diverse musical event in a small Catskill Mountain town of 400 previously best known for whitewater tubing. 2010’s floods helped spur the festival’s goal as a community-healing force. Barry Banks’s first Rigoletto Duke and Lucas Meacham’s (Rossini) Figaro have been highlights, along with Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral and Brian Asawa in concerts.

August 1 witnessed two successful ventures in the American operatic canon. Beth Greenberg helmed a modest but highly effective staging of The Medium at the STS Playhouse, a former Odd Fellow’s Hall dating from 1887. From her Mama Rose-style entrance up the aisle, Victoria Livengood imbued Mme. Flora with her wonted theatrical energy. Her barrelhouse contralto suits the role’s scary moments; but, admirably, she brought legato-based soft tone to quieter passages, furnishing welcome contrast. Livengood is a seasoned Menotti interpreter who worked with the composer on this opera and The Consul and has also appeared in Maria Golovin. Her phrasing of the disintegrating fraud’s final soliloquy proved expertly judged. She made every syllable of the text crystal clear, like an old-style Broadway professional. That trait might have rubbed off more on the gifted young Monica, Lily Arbisser, whose appearance, characterization and—with a touch more freedom desirable up top—individual-timbred soprano were pretty much ideal. But words matter.  The talented Jack Warren—welcomely, a real teenager in the role—made Toby’s yearning eloquent. Monica Niemi and Matthew Gamble as the Gobineaus and Daidree Tofano as Mrs. Nolan all sang clearly and affectingly. Music director David Mayfield seated at the piano, made us forget that some of Menotti’s Grand Guignol musical effects work best with an orchestra. 

The outdoor Festival Stage, with covered pavilions as well as picnic-ready lawn space open to the sides, nestles near the wooded mountainside. This attractive setting draws crowds comprising young families and older locals new to opera as well as urban sophisticates and the area’s many resident and weekending bohemians. Acoustics vary with speaker placement; the starry sky did the rest for the evening’s Of Mice and Men. With no wings and the singers occupying a big triangle catty-corner to the orchestra, director Albert Sherman and conductor Elizabeth Scott confronted challenges of focus and balance. Sherman blocked with sufficient skill to carry the narrative; if the bunkhouse chorus basically stood and sang, they sounded surprisingly blended. Scott’s control and sense of texture in a one-off performance of Carlisle Floyd’s rhythmically tricky score proved impressive. Floyd, detained in Florida by a family emergency, recorded a message of greeting played at intermission. Whatever one thinks of “American verismo” as a genre, his score remains a taut, viable response to John Steinbeck’s Depression tale. The Grimes-style interludes are high points musically; many in the audience seemed to warm to the Ballad Singer’s lyrical turn, nicely done by Dominick Carbacio. What has not aged well—as much Steinbeck’s fault as anyone’s—is the story’s fundamental and relentless misogyny. Curley’s Wife—deprived even of a name—is musically and dramatically the coloratura-spitting serpent in an otherwise sentimentally conceived though hardscrabble homosocial garden. Even her corpse gets cursed and spat upon—by Candy (here Timothy Lafontaine, longer on characterization than pitch). Nancy Allen Lundy, who played the role at NYCO some years ago, retains the figure and fioritura control to do most effectively what the work asks her to do. 

The lead pair was very well cast. A convincing, sympathetic George dramatically, Malcolm MacKenzie brought linear solidity and an impressive upper register to his music. Michael Robert Hendrick’s disturbed, disturbing Lenny was an extraordinarily intense performance, perhaps lacking Anthony Dean Griffey’s compensatory timbral sweetness but—almost always—rising excitingly to the cutting climaxes Floyd fashioned for Robert Moulson and pointedly shaping both sung and spoken interventions. Aaron Blake managed to make Curley both sexy and repulsive, deploying his tenor incisively. Lawrence Craig’s Slim proved an anchoring presence vocally and dramatically.

The Festival packed much of interest to operagoers into five ambitious days: Philip Cutlip and Emily Pulley headlining Sam Helfrich’s workshop of Robert Manno’s new opera on Dylan Thomas, a contemporary American song program with Frederica von Stade and Flanigan among the performers, plus stagings of A Little Night Music (starring Ron Raines and Rosalind Elias) and Souvenir (the Florence Foster Jenkins play). Phoenicia has joined Bard and Caramoor as a destination to consider for weekend and day trips; next summer promises Otello and Kiss Me, Kate!  —David Shengold

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