27 Sep 2018

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

Subtitled as “The Ring Cycle of drag, tenors, and rock & roll, unfolding over three different nights,” I saw only the first, and was sated by the time Blythely After Hours came to a close with We Are the Champions sung in an Italian translation by Corrado Rovaris.

Starring one of the great operatic mezzos of our day, Stephanie Blythe uncompromisingly adapted the guise of star “tenor,” Blythely Oratonio. “He” begins the night singing upstage, back to us, intoning Pavarotti’s signature aria, Nessun dorma, in thundering chest tones, arms semaphoring, succeeding after a fashion, but somewhat hampered by initially tinny miking. (Daniel Perelstein’s sound design thereafter settled in to a good mix.)

When Mr. Oratonio finally turned to face us on the applause, “he” looked like Baba the Turk had wandered in from another opera. And it made me realize how much rather I would be hearing the mezzo in that or any other real opera role. Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Blythe, er um, I mean Mr. Blythely can sing the phone book with artistry and compelling delivery. And while she-as-he never slums stylistically essaying the copious pop material, neither does the performer ever quite consistently come into her own. For all her confident showmanship, the evening simply did not show off the magnificent richness of Stephanie Blythe’s potent instrument, with the insistent chest voice sharply pointed without turning over into her warm, womanly, not tenorly coloring.

To her great credit, the diva seems to be having a great time, one moment the complete esthete, another calculatedly vulgar, always engaged, ever energized to entertain us, and the vast majority of the audience was eating it up. Operatic tradition put-downs: big laugh. Singers’ ego disses: ha ha ha. Mezzo singing Vesti la giubba alternating with Send in the Clowns: how does she change gears like that?

Everyone did their level best to enliven and sustain the 90-minute goof. Rachel Camp (Bey) and Rob Tucker (Linda) were willing accomplices. A group of acolytes dubbed the Merepeople sang and cavorted gamely: Dane Allison, Messapotamia Lefae, Kathryn Raines, Bobby “Fabulous” Goodrich. Two of them chirped some agreeable interjected measures of the Flower Duet. Best of all, the vivacious guest star Brenda Rae wandered in to shuck her fur coat down to her bloody white Lucia gown, accompany herself on a Tori Amos song, and then sing counterpoint to Oratonio’s Faithfully with an operatically soaring The Winner Takes It All. A second guest appearance by Justin Vivian Bond was less assured, with a cue card having to be provided for her to get through her number.

Curiously for a festival that is top tier in every way, that sort of stumble occurred a couple times in the evening, with gentle prompts having to be provided to get things back on track. Indeed, the whole enterprise seemed to have the aura of a somewhat (intended?) slapdash, wee hours drag show. At the piano, the talented Daniel Kazemi provided excellent musical leadership and very satisfying arrangements. When he took off his suit jacket to reveal a leather vest and some toned biceps, the ripple through the audience told me exactly the hedonism and chicanery most were here for.

The inventive director John Jarboe mostly kept things moving at a good clip, and while the material he wrote (in tandem with the two stars) was a little loosey goosey, the pace at least was forward-looking, and he kept us from spending too long dwelling on one beat. Machine Dazzle’s costume and production was suitably Tacky Chic, and Drew Billiau lit the show with color and imagination.

Personally, in a slightly overlong evening of flimsy, jokey, pop material, I was hoping for more Blythe and less Blythely, more emphasis on her incomparable voice than her over-the-top assumed “persona.” That said, there are probably many satisfied customers who intend to come back to be similarly subjected to the second and third installments of the series: Faur├ęplay with Martha Graham Cracker, and Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. As for me, Blythely After Hours was a good enough chuckle but I think for the moment I am queened out. . .

James Sohre

Queens of the Night, Blythely After Hours

Blythely Oratonio: Stephanie Blythe; Bey: Rachel Camp; Linda: Rob Tucker; Guest stars: Brenda Rae, Justin Vivian Bond; Merepeople: Dane Allison, Messapotamia Lefae, Kathryn Raines, Bobby “Fabulous” Goodrich; Writer/Director: John Jarboe; Music Direction/Arrangements: Daniel Kazemi; Costume/Production Design: Machine Dazzle; Lighting Design: Drew Billau; Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein