In Review > North America

Emmeline (6/13/15), Richard the Lionheart (6/11/15), La Rondine (6/12/15), The Barber of Seville (6/14/15)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

In Review OTSL Emmeline hdl 915
Emmeline in Saint Louis, with El-Khoury (on floor), Nicole Haslett (Sophie), Renée Rapier (Mrs. Bass) and Geoffrey Agpalo (Hooker)
© Ken Howard
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Biller and Mead, Costanza and Richard in OTSL’s Richard
© Ken Howard
IN Review OTSL Rondine lg 915
Winters and Kalil, Puccini’s Magda and Ruggero in Saint Louis © Ken Howard

TOBIAS PICKER AND J. D. McCLATCHY'S  Emmeline was a hit at at its Santa Fe world premiere in 1996. The opera, which helped launch the star career of Patricia Racette, was telecast on PBS in 1997 and entered New York City Opera’s repertory in 1998. But despite its early acclaim, Emmeline has had scant subsequent attention from other U.S. opera companies. This year, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which often reserves a slot in its season for a worthy recent work, offered the opera’s local premiere. 

Emmeline’s bleak scenario may have deterred other companies. In Act I, the title character, as a lonely fourteen-year-old millworker in 1840s Massachusetts, is seduced and impregnated by the factory supervisor; in Act II, twenty years later, she falls in love and marries a charismatic young man who is revealed, at the opera’s climax, to be her own son. Emmeline ends with the heroine in utter isolation, contemplating her remaining days as a pariah. But for all its grimness, in OTSL’s mounting (seen at its opening, on the evening of June 13) the piece most definitely held the stage. James Robinson’s production, featuring Allen Moyer’s spare, handsome settings and Christopher Akerlind’s stunningly evocative lighting, laid out the cheerless action in strong, decisive lines. A spinning turntable evoked both the passage of time and the powerlessness of characters turned into the playthings of fate. 

Robinson’s signal achievement here lay in the performances he drew from his cast: this was a true acting ensemble, working to bring Emmeline’s drama to life. Standouts included tenor John Irvin, coping handily with Picker’s treacherously high vocal writing while turning Matthew Gurney, the Oedipal crux of the drama, into an appealing, keenly energetic young man. Wayne Tigges brought texture and nuance to his portrayal of the supervisor Maguire; the opera’s villain became, if not a sympathetic figure, a fully human, even pitiable one. As Emmeline’s sister,  Harriet, Felicia Moore (a member of OTSL’s Gerdine Young Artist program) offered a vivid study in petulant malice. Meredith Arwady played Emmeline’s bible-thumping Aunt Hannah — the woman who delivers Emmeline’s baby, arranges for its adoption, then guards her niece’s secret. The very sound of Arwady’s large-scale contralto evoked the character’s implacable strength, and she delivered the climax’s terrible revelation (“Emmeline is your mother!”) with torrential force.

Joyce El-Khoury was Emmeline. The soprano’s work was focused and conscientious throughout, although she was inevitably more effective as the thirty-four-year-old of Act II than as the fourteen-year-old of Act I — an imbalance built into the piece. But I was more impressed than moved by El-Khoury’s performance, and for this I blame Picker. Despite the length of the role, the composer simply hasn’t given his heroine enough to sing. Only Emmeline’s plaint at the beginning of Act II, in which she ruminates on the loss of her child, struck me as truly effective vocal writing. Elsewhere, it’s the evocative orchestral continuity that conveys the thrust of the drama, with the vocal lines falling into place willy-nilly above. (The composer’s habit of signaling dramatic intensity by sending the singers into their highest registers, although not so pronounced as in his later American Tragedy, nonetheless proved wearying.)

 Picker’s compositional technique requires the singer playing Emmeline to make her effects primarily through verbal inflection, rather than through the shape she gives the music. This limitation made it seem as if El-Khoury were performing without her chief expressive resource. For all its effectiveness as a piece of theater with music — and for all the sterling effort OTSL put into mounting it — Emmeline remained unconvincing as opera. 

George Manahan conducted, as he had at the Santa Fe premiere, eliciting sharply characterized playing from the Saint Louis Symphony contingent that formed OTSL’s pit band, elucidating Picker’s sometimes knotty counterpoint and letting the work’s elusive lyricism shine through. 

The season’s other novelty was Handel’s Riccardo Primo, given here as Richard the Lionheart,in a production billed as the work’s first U.S. staging. Considering the piece for its score alone — a feast of prime Handel — it’s hard to fathom why it should have been so neglected. But Richard is not a dramatically compelling opera. Its plot — involving a shipwreck, a series of disguises and mistaken identities, and the conflict between a noble ruler and a wicked one — owes little to the life of the actual King Richard I (1157–99) and everything to the conventions of eighteenth-century opera. The action proceeds lumpily, seeming to resolve itself at the end of Act II (when Richard and his fiancée, Costanza, converge in one of the composer’s most ravishing duets), only to start up again in Act III with a series of newly introduced conflicts that allow the piece to lurch toward its final curtain.

As if in compensation, director Lee Blakeley introduced a number of outré extraneous elements, seemingly intended to bring a modern, “daring” frisson to an essentially inert piece of drama. The villainous Isacio planted a couple of incestuous kisses on the lips of his daughter Pulcheria; cadavers hung from the rafters during one of Richard’s martial arias, reminding us that war is indeed lethal; Costanza, confounding both sound and sense, played her final, flute-accompanied aria as a mad scene. None of these directorial inventions informed the dramatic whole: they were like bits of indigestible gristle in an otherwise pleasing stew. Although Jean-Marc Puissant’s distressed-wood settings insisted a bit too urgently on the rough circumstances of the shipwreck, for the most part the production commendably allowed the music to make its effect, letting the singers comport themselves in consonance with the expressive demands of the moment.

The production, seen at the June 13 matinée, fielded a pair of exemplary Handel singers as the dueling monarchs. Tim Mead, in the title role, proved to be that rarest of creatures, a macho countertenor. His sound was rich and forceful — even in the most florid passages, it maintained its startling vigor — and he brought an infectious swagger to his physical portrayal. Brandon Cedel, as Isacio, revealed a bass-baritone of impressive weight and conveyed the tyrant’s nefarious nature without once resorting to a snarl. Only in recent years have we dared to hope that a lower-voiced singer could actually articulate Handel’s coloratura; Cedel fulfilled that wish with florid singing of stunning accuracy and beauty of tone. 

Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel’s original Costanza, was celebrated for her delicate pathos in lyrical arias, but this element of the role was hard to glean from soprano Susanna Biller’s performance. Much of her singing lacked nuance, the relentlessly bright sound flung into the house; I kept wishing that Biller would pay more attention to the sound emerging from the pit and attempt to join the chamber-music-like ensemble. Only in the exquisite Act II duet with Mead did Biller find the lyricism that had hitherto eluded her. As Pulcheria, Devon Guthrie had a rough start, but she recovered her bearings in Act II. Her lyric soprano had an appealing trace of smokiness; her negotiation of Handel’s passagework was true and imaginative. 

Tai Oney cut a likable figure as Pulcheria’s fiancé, Oronte. His fragile countertenor gained in focus the higher it went; lower down, the oddly produced, “bottled” sound impeded the musical line. Adam Lau, as Costanza’s servant Berardo, had difficulty finding the center of the pitch in florid passages. Conductor Grant Llewellyn drew stylish buoyancy from his players. The brass in Riccardo’s bravura “All’orror delle procelle” (here, in a translation by Damian Thantrey and the director, “Forged by horrors of the tempest”) rang out with bracing, imperial force.

La Rondine, though hardly a rarity on the order of Emmeline and Riccardo Primo, is nonetheless by a good measure the least performed of Puccini’s mature operas. At the June 12 OTSL performance, I could only wonder at its relative obscurity. Seen back-to-back with Emmeline, it was surprising to realize how similar the two plots are: both chronicle a love affair between a guileless young man and a worldly-wise woman; in both, the idyll is shattered when the woman is forced to reveal her tainted past. 

But the tone of Rondine is sweetly melancholic rather than grimly tragic, and its charm and pathos were on full display in conductor Stephen Lord’s reading. Lord made Act II a succession of marvels, bringing out the irresistible Léhar-esque schmaltz of its love duet; the full-throated passion of its central ensemble; and the hushed intensity of the moment near the end when the heroine, Magda, is left alone onstage and it seems the Parisian air itself is responding to her quickened heartbeat.

That the performance succeeded as well as it did was in no way due to Michael Gieleta’s clumsy production. Alexander Dodge’s two-tiered set effectively cut the playing area in half, creating any number of awkward moments in the deployment of props and set pieces. Key dramatic incidents were muddied: for instance, in Act II, it was hard to discern the point at which the disguised Magda acknowledges her ruse to her friend Prunier and maid Lisette. And in Act III, Lisette and Prunier pondered Magda’s whereabouts at length while the lady herself sat in full view in front of them. It didn’t help that the production was saddled with Robert Hess’s English translation, which, in an attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme of the Italian original, consistently descended into distracting, witless doggerel (“We must not be detected/True love must be respected!”).

This Rondine nonetheless packed a dramatic punch, due to Lord’s presence in the pit and Corinne Winters’s stunning work as its heroine. She commanded the stage not through any narcissistic demand on our attention but through her immersion in the dramatic moment and her luminous expressivity. At this particular performance, her voice wasn’t ideally free, especially in Act I, but nonetheless at the musical climaxes it acquired a truly Puccinian lyrical force. The flecks of darkness in her complex lyric soprano, too, suggested the character’s sad situation — her yearning, her visceral comprehension of her unwinnable situation. Winters is a beautiful woman, but this would count for little if she weren’t such a beautiful performer, one who uses her physical gifts and musical expertise in service of dramatic truth. 

Anthony Kalil, the Ruggero, did not exhibit Winters’s level of stage prowess, but when he executed a stunning diminuendo in his profession of love to Magda, his vocalism conveyed the ardor lacking in his physical presence. John McVeigh dug zestfully into the role of the foppish Prunier, and his articulation of the text, for better or for worse, was impeccable. Sydney Mancasola was a delightful Lisette, scoring comic points through the sharpness of her vocal attack. 

In Review OTSL Barbiere hdl 2 915
Show-bizzy: Tiesi, Fons and Beyer in Barber
© Ken Howard

This season’s sole foray into the standard repertoire was The Barber of Seville, seen on June 14. Director Michael Shell elected to stage the piece as a gloss on the films of Pedro Almodóvar, seemingly motivated by little more than a show-bizzy form of free association that equated “Spain” with “Almodóvar.” I can think of no area of aesthetic overlap between Almodóvar’s camp surrealism and Rossini’s buffo sparkle, but if one does indeed exist, Shell’s appalling production sure as hell didn’t find it. 

Setting the piece somewhere in the middle of the last century, Shell redefined all its principal characters, in the process sabotaging the opera’s plot. Almaviva, who supposedly remains incognito until the opera’s denouement, was here a famous playboy with his photo plastered on news kiosks. Rosina, rather than living sequestered from the outside world, was her guardian’s nurse/receptionist, boisterously interacting with his patients. Berta became a zaftig, decaying sexpot, wearing a too-tight miniskirt and wiggling her behind at every opportunity. (This horribly misogynistic conception did a gross disservice to Eliza Johnson, the able young artist assigned to carry it out.) Worse still, Figaro was conceived as a flouncing, tiresome queen, far too self-enchanted to observe and stage-manage the doings around him. 

The director’s nonstop succession of desperately unfunny gags regularly involved a motley band of supers (nuns, flamenco dancers, a stilt-walker) flinging confetti in a failed attempt to persuade us that we were having a rollicking good time. The relentless activity created an aesthetic clamor that made it difficult even to hearthis Barber, which may be one reason the performers themselves made so little effect. Jonathan Beyer brought scant wit or insinuation to his voicing of Figaro’s lines — but considering the manner in which he was directed to play the part, perhaps he simply couldn’t have. Emily Fons, the Rosina, displayed an attractive lyric mezzo and good technique, but she was undone at every turn by directorial intervention — especially when she was required to pound a table angrily in the “Ma se mi toccano” section of “Una voce poco fa,” obliterating the passage’s citric charm. The dull finish of Christopher Tiesi’s tenor made him an unromantic Almaviva. 

Dale Travis brought a veteran’s savvy to Bartolo, turning the cantankerous doctor into a version of Dennis the Menace’s Mr. Wilson. Jeongcheol Cha was convincingly sleazy in his first appearance as a lamé-clad lounge singer of a Basilio, but Shell subsequently gave him little to do but reiterate the initial premise. Conductor Ryan McAdams’s slack reading effectively took the fizz out of Rossini’s musical invention. The fine English translation was by Kelly Rourke. —Fred Cohn

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