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In Review > North America

The Trial (6/10/17), The Grapes of Wrath (6/9/17), Madame Butterfly (6/12/17), La Clemenza di Tito (6/10/17)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

In Review OTSL Trial hdl 917
Mellon, Ryan, Lau, Blue, Biller, Hoffman and Phares in The Trial at OTSL
© Ken Howard

PHILIP GLASS'S nervous compositional style proved an ideal match for Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare The Trial (seen June 10). Librettist Christopher Hampton, with whom Glass previously collaborated on an adaptation of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, follows the novel’s plot closely, and Glass perfectly complements the story’s anxieties, crafting an effectively surreal and terrifying opera that also frequently manages to be darkly and surprisingly funny. 

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s production—the first in the U.S.—intensified the unsettling atmosphere. Director Michael McCarthy adopted a German Expressionist aesthetic that evoked Robert Wilson’s characteristic style: the singers wore black-and-white costumes against a gray-scale set (both by Simon Banham) and sported paleface makeup and often impossibly thick mustaches and extra-long neck beards. (Wigs and makeup were by Tom Watson). All of it was lighted, at unnaturally canted angles, by recent Tony winner Christopher Akerlind. It evoked the Germany of the teens, when Kafka wrote The Trial, and the ’20s, when it was posthumously published—at least as we remember those Germanys from silent movies.

Glass is a prolific opera composer, though his best-known examples are early-career, less-than-narrative headscratchers, such as Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. This one, by contrast, is awfully plot-heavy, though of course where it goes and why, via Kafka, can be confounding; it depicts an impenetrably mysterious legal system that resists not just efforts to fight it but any attempt even to understand its basic functionality. The novel suggests an allegory with vague spiritual or metaphysical implications, but the opera seemed to be more literally about the systemic failure of the law and the courts. 

Glass’s typical musical idiom feels muted here; the chord progressions are recognizably Glassian, but there are few arpeggios, limited repetitions, a restrained number of notes and sparse orchestration; the work is haunting, but subtly so. The Trial, which received its world premiere from Music Theatre Wales in 2014, is a chamber opera, what Glass calls a “pocket opera,” easier to produce anywhere because of the limited resources it requires. “I think of my pocket operas as neutron bombs,” he has said—“small, but packing a terrific punch.” The score is still characteristically complex, requiring tenderness and precision, and conductor Carolyn Kuan approached it carefully, at times over-cautiously, taking tempos at deliberate tick-tock paces.  

The production’s fire came from its Josef K., Theo Hoffman, the man accused of an unknown crime; his performance ought to serve as a letter of introduction to opera houses around the world. Streams of silver poured from his mouth; he was the bright moonlight in the cool, creepy, cirrusy sky of Glass’s score. An aria in Act I, in which he orates the injustice and absurdity of his ordeal, was thrillingly ablaze, until it was interrupted by a public act of fornication; his final line, as a knife enters his gut—“Like a dog!,” same as the novel—had devastating and breathtaking finality, ending the question-marky opera with an unexpected exclamation point. 

Hoffman was joined by a strong cast, often costumed similarly and playing multiple roles, adding to the tale’s hellish incomprehensibility. (They were also often present in scenes in which they did not sing, as silent observers, providing an extra layer of unease.) Robert Mellon displayed a domineering baritone, gleaming like polished copper, best employed as the Priest, whose delivery of the cryptic “Before the Law” parable was furiously barked and howled against Glass’s grotesque glories. Joshua Blue was wonderful as Block, another accused man; skittering and leaping across the stage, he sang with passionate desperation and a dynamic tenor that could be lean-in soft or rafter-rattling loud. 

Brenton Ryan was most notable as Titorelli, the painter, for whom he adopted a rakish art-school charm, his unkempt hair in notable contrast to Hoffman’s careful combing; he had an appropriately loose vocal style that was lively yet controlled. Baritone Keith Phares, as the lawyer Huld, sang in clean lines with tidy pitch, summoning frightening authority when needed. Bass Matthew Lau, as Uncle Albert, balanced out the cast with a dark, gruff sound. Susannah Biller, as Leni, Josef’s lover, had a sweet yet sinister voice, reminiscent of bitter honey, while Sofia Selowsky, as the promiscuous Washerwoman, had a tone as inky as night winds. It was as if there were no room for any brightness or beauty in this upsettingly inscrutable story.

In Review OSTL Grapes Wrath hdl 917
The Joad family, California-bound in The Grapes of Wrath at OTSL
© Ken Howard

THE OTHER MUCH-ANTICIPATED contemporary American opera at Saint Louis this season was also tragic—but not nearly so successful. The Grapes of Wrath (seen June 9), by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie, was first performed in 2007, at Minnesota Opera; the consensus was that it was too long. Saint Louis commissioned a revision from Korie and Gordon, which received its premiere on May 27—in two acts instead of three, at just less than three hours instead of more than four. But this new version was still disappointing. Gordon often composes here in a contemporary Hollywood-soundtrack style, in a mock-American idiom that’s vaguely bluesy. Conductor Christopher Allen gave the music a jazzy bounce, but despite a few powerful moments, it was still too corny when the subject should be anything but. John Steinbeck’s American tragedy is operatic in scope, but this treatment failed to capture its majestic scale. 

Korie’s libretto sometimes strains awkwardly—“It’s time to quit this dusty bowl / Where a man can lose his soul”—but he concisely repackaged the familiar story, at least at first, while also allowing certain moments to take their time. One of the most haunting images in John Ford’s 1940 film version is when Ma Joad stands in front of a mirror, holding up a pair of earrings; here, the moment is expanded into a plaintive aria highlighting the underlying themes. Other moments were expanded too much. Connie and Rosasharn’s duet about how it might be possible for them to have sex quietly feels expendable; the waitress who memorably gives two Joad children candy at a very discounted price gets to deliver an aria about truck drivers and then a followup about the tip she received from them. Why spend so much time and music on inessential story and a character who never reappears? The action in Act II rushes along, hitting its source-material marks, without being selective enough about what to include or offering sensible transitions between what is there. It needs further streamlining.

The creative team in Saint Louis gave it their best. Director James Robinson’s production opens in what appears to be a soup kitchen, where even the bowls of belly-warmer are covered in a thick layer of dust. The tables are full, and the chorus is chatting before the doors open to let the audience in, powerfully suggesting that Steinbeck’s concerns are perpetually relevant, that the depicted action has been ongoing: powerful moneyed forces have hurt the little guy in this country and continue to do so. Robinson moves fluidly through the episodic narrative, ingeniously using different configurations of the room’s chairs and wooden tables to evoke Okie homesteads and California farms, even the family’s jalopy as it travels down Route 66. Noah Joad’s suicide by drowning is hauntingly evoked with just a couple of buckets, a long sheet and some sea-green light (again by Akerlind). 

The principal cast was about as big as the chorus. I counted thirty-four soloists, several of whom sang multiple roles, and at times it felt like every one was going to get his or her own aria. The star is Ma Joad, who holds together both the family and the story. Katharine Goeldner was fiercely committed to the role, projecting the necessary hurt and pride and strength and love. She also sounded the strongest and most moving I’ve heard her in the past few years, especially in her earthy lower range. Tobias Greenhalgh, as Tom Joad, could have used more volume, though he had a handsome charm that was American-prairie appropriate. 

Levi Hernandez, as Pa Joad, has a big voice that usually dominated the stage. Robert Orth, as Uncle John, looked like David Carr and had a grizzly growl to match. Dennis Petersen, as Grampa, had yee-hawing enthusiasm, grabbing and squeezing his arias like they were California grapes. But as Muley, the evicted farmer, he was terse and heartbreaking, with eyes so sad and tired that they seemed swollen shut. He also sang three other roles, each utterly different from the last, displaying impressive range as both actor and tenor. 

Michael Day, as Al, Tom’s younger brother, was bright, clear and endearing. Hugh Russell, as his slow-witted older brother Noah, had a meaty voice and big, honest emotions. Deanna Breiwick, as Rosasharn, their sister, had candy-sweet tone that was airy and gauzy. Andrew Lovato, as Connie, her husband, sang in a forward baritone, cutting when frustrated and expansive when dreamy. Tenor Geoffrey Agpalo, as the ukulele-strumming erstwhile preacher Jim Casy, was clear-voiced and giddy.

In Review OTSL Butterfly lg 917
Harms and Brandenburg, Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton in St. Louis
© Ken Howard

THERE WAS NOTHING GIDDY about the company’s Madame Butterfly. Director Robin Guarino and her creative team created a production (seen June 12) that was careful not to beat you over the head. But there was an underlying intensification of the tragedy Puccini’s opera relates, including extra hints of what a gross, insensitive and racist cad Pinkerton is. Why is the eminently decent Sharpless even friends with him, and how did he ever get the ostensibly kindhearted Mrs. Pinkerton to marry him? The English libretto—everything in Saint Louis is sung in English—worked especially well here, because it made it harder for the tragedy to hide behind the past. Without the exotic Italian, it was plainly offensive. For god’s sake, Cio-Cio-San is only fifteen years old!

Rena Harms, who previously sang the role at ENO and made her OTSL debut here, lacked the necessary power for Cio-Cio-San, getting shrill up high, where she pushed her voice; in “Un bel dì,” she could be barky, and the climactic high note was screechy. Her tone was polished, but that didn’t seem quite right, especially in Act III, which lacked an important underlying sense of hurt. The top of her range was attractively ethereal, and her mezza voce was tender. She was at her best at her softest, but it’s not a soft role. Still, her farewell to her son was affecting, and her subsequent suicide underlined the cruelty of her ordeal.

Michael Brandenburg, as Pinkerton, was booed at the curtain call, winkingly, for his villainy. His musicianship was actually quite admirable, with a fresh, youthful, heroic tone at odds with the character’s unpleasantness, adding complexity to the drama by making it hard to hate him, especially with that Ryan Gosling-like face. His muscular tenor was so bare it was practically exhibitionist. Christopher Magiera, as Sharpless, had a lapidary baritone that cut through Puccini’s dense Romanticism, as well as a palpable kindness in his face and carriage that was especially moving in Act II, when the character struggles to deliver the bad news about Pinkerton’s new marriage. 

John McVeigh, as Goro, was robust and pointed, and Renée Rapier, as Suzuki, was appealing in her interactions with the child and her shock at Pinkerton’s behavior. Michael Christie led a brisk reading of the score, though he made space for more sweeping passages. The offstage procession preceding Butterfly’s arrival was achingly Tchaikovskian, with melancholic joy. And the humming chorus was affectingly soft, full of delicate feeling. The Opera Theatre chorus, comprised of budding soloists from the Gerdine Young Artist Program, was astonishingly good.

In Review OSTL Tito hdl 917
Barbera and Hall in Titus at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
© Ken Howard

THERE WAS NO SURPRISE, as the chorus had been a highlight the night before, at Titus—the company’s name for its production of La Clemenza di Tito (seen June 10, opening night)—when its impeccable phrasing and dynamics exposed the music’s underlying emotions like human nerves. Music director Stephen Lord has said he chose this opera to go out on (he will retain an emeritus title) because he could cast it in typical Opera Theatre fashion—with former young artists at the starts of their careers. It was a masterstroke, an astonishingly well-cast production, cleverly directed and impeccably conducted. Lord’s reading was assured, serious but not oppressively so, teasing out the Mozartean gaiety with steady charm, rich in colors and shifting textures.

Laura Wilde proved herself an exceptional actress as Vitellia, funny and furious, expertly manipulative, especially in recitative, where she had a little more interpretive wiggle room. In director Stephen Lawless’s semitraditional production, Vitellia was almost a comic character; Wilde was vivacious without demeaning the material, making Mozart as sexy and witty, as colloquial, idiomatic and modern as early Sondheim. But she was outdone by René Barbera, who sang with such confidence and evenness as Emperor Tito that you imagine he must interact with loved ones and store clerks in sung recit. It sounded refreshing, delightfully organic and light.

Cecelia Hall, as Sesto, had a keen sense of line and ornamentation. Monica Dewey, as Servilia, had pretty tone and consummate Mozartean style. Emily D’Angelo, as Annio, displayed glowing mezza voce, using her sweet, romantic voice with fluttering abandon. Matthew Stump made a remarkably sturdy-voiced, lustrous Publio. Each role was lived-in, the stage radiating palpable love and anguish, each aria and ensemble more splendid than the last.

General director Timothy O’Leary pointed out at a private event before the show that Mozart wrote the opera, his last (though it was first performed before The Magic Flute), just two years after the U.S. Constitution was signed. The opera is often considered mockingly, as a reactionary fantasy of benevolent monarchism, written for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. But director Lawless seemed to see the clement Tito instead as an American, Enlightenment ideal. The action began in front of a gray, ultrawide screen, above which hovered an enormous bald-eagle sculpture—head, wings and talons, with arrows in one and an olive branch in the other; as Tito was hurt and angered by betrayal, the pieces descended to the stage, the sculpture broken, the gray screen lit red as Rome burned. 

Titus demonstrated that opera can still sparkle and be relevant and vivid, even when the music is 226 years old and the story even older. All it needs is a cast and creative team as symbiotically collaborative as this one was.  —Henry Stewart 



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