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Portrait of William Walton
06 Jul 2008

Unusual Fare at Opera Festival of St. Louis

My visit to two rarely mounted pieces at the Opera Festival of St. Louis brought to mind the little girl with the curl, for when it was good, it was very very good and when it was bad, it was, um. . .er. . .

William Walton: Troilus and Cressida
Vicente Martín y Soler: Una Cosa Rara

Above: Portrait of William Walton


But let’s begin with the “very very good,” shall we? The new production of William Walton’s “Troilus and Cressida” was remarkably fine. Above all, it was impeccably cast with vibrant, exciting young artists who were uncommonly gifted.

Roger Honeywell was a charismatic and impassioned “Troilus;” blond, strapping, and possessed of a fresh, well-schooled, ringing tenor that would be the envy of many a “Bacchus” I have heard. He not only has the requisite ping for the dramatic outbursts, but provided equally compelling, well-modulated phrases in a caressing voix-mixe. Like other tenors capable of stentorian singing, the tone can get a little wide and open on held notes around the passaggio and he seemed to take a bit of time to completely warm up, but overall Mr. Honeywell contributed an impressive evening of singing.

As “Cressida,” Ellie Dehn was no less compelling. Her free and easy top was always in the service of creamy lyrical outpourings, and she was equally capable of hurling thrilling climactic thunderbolts. Ms. Dehn has a beautiful warm, round sound throughout the range, although the initial expository demands challenged the soprano to deploy wordy lower middle passages against a busy and occasionally dense accompaniment. In spite of good vocalism and conscientious diction, this did make me look at the surtitles through much of her Act I set piece.

Nonetheless, her great scena of despair in Act Three (indeed, the whole of the act) could hardly have been bettered for musicality, dramatic purpose, ravishing sound, consistent characterization, and total immersion into the story. This is a very fine artist.

Robert Breault turned in a witty, commanding portrayal as the meddling “Pandarus.” Whether nailing the fussy melismas, making musical sense of the angular and long-winded phrases, or pouring out some plain ol' fine lyric tenor singing, he commanded the stage every moment with his thoroughly engaging performance. A major talent announced its presence as soon as Mark S. Doss’s “Diomede” pinned our ears back with his thunderous bass declamations. His fine vocalism was married to a handsome presence and a subtle portrait of a sinuously ill-intentioned Power Player.

Elizabeth Batton’s plummy mezzo, with awesomely rich chest tones, made the most of “Evadne’s” secondary part, and and she was captivating in her poised treachery. The opera’s opportunistic turncoat “Calkas,” was well managed by Darren K. Stokes, and Aleksey Bogdanov made a fine impression in his brief moments as “Anternor.” All of the minor roles were well-assigned to several of the highly talented soloists in the Gerdine Young Artists Program, who also provided the thrilling choral work under the sure hand of Sandra Horst.

The spot-on physical production was designed by the gifted Gideon Davey. A program note described that the team envisioned this as a claustrophobic, bunker-like tale of the inglorious side of war, and it was visually borne out by a slightly raked gray platform topped by a ceiling, both of which extended from up right to down left in a rather gaping perspective. On the triangular apron, a patch of reddish earth accommodated a make-shift shrine, later removed to create a pit for a miserable “Cressida” to grovel in. Impeccably selected decorations were complemented by simple drawn drapes at the back and sides, and cleverly designed panels which opened to reveal such things as a concealed library, a concealed chorus, and in a visual coup, a massive practical dirt-furrowed ramp that descended from the ceiling. The latter allowed for some stunning stage compositions.

Within this highly evocative playing environment, director Stephen Lawless worked some true theatrical magic with well-considered blocking, complex sub-text-rich character relationships that unfolded inevitably, and best of all, a keen knack for perfectly judged placement of the singers on the stage. I cannot recall a better grouping of assembled forces in any recent production than in the huge concerted number in the final act. Every single singer was where (s)he needed to be for maximum presence and musical effect. Masterful.

The opera’s pivotal scene was so well-judged it elicited gasps as “Cressida” first knelt to “Diomede” in supposed capitulation, then in one motion swept the red scarf off his shoulders and onto the adjacent “Troilus,” sealing their doom with chills-inducing imagery. Only the final visual of the piece produced a “huh?” moment, as a panel burst out of the back wall revealing a hanged corpse, with “Cressida” still in the process of exiting the stage. If the point was to prompt much discussion as to who it was or what it meant, it succeeded. For me, it was an unnecessarily confusing image after an evening of utmost clarity of purpose.

The beautiful, character-specific costumes were by the reliably talented Martín Pakledinaz (what a briliant touch incorporating the BDU material in the soldiers attire). All of this was was wonderfully complemented by an effective lighting design devised by Mark McCullough (especially fine were the unusual storm effects).

Maestro Antony Walker conducted the (Walton estate sanctioned) reduced orchestration with great attention to detail and considerable dramatic fire. I am not sure what was “lost” in the translation to this smaller band (and chorus), but it certain made for riveting listening to my ears. Owing to an unavoidable quirk of the physical set-up of the Loretto Hilton Theatre, it seemed to me the stage overhang and pit-mandated player placement did impose a reduced presence and brilliance in the lower voices. But this is a minor reservation in a evening so jam-packed with musical and theatrical riches.

On the evidence of this mounting, “Troilus and Cressida” deserves to be heard again and again, especially now that there are splendid singers who know it! Indeed, it is this production that should be deemed “A Rare Treasure,” but alas that name was already taken by the other St. Louis rarity, Vicente Martín y Soler’s “Una Cosa Rara.”

I felt there were two serious mistakes with this Soler production. First, designer David Zinn put an eight foot wide, twelve inch high platform running from upstage to down, bisecting the entire playing area with an obstacle that informed and disturbed every blocking pattern throughout the evening. Watching singers, especially women in heels having to hike up and over this thing was at best tiresome, at worst worrysome, lest someone misjudge the height in all the frantic movement.

Second, and more damaging, director Chas Rader-Schieber seemed to have little faith in the musical and dramatic material, overloading the proceedings with shtick that would have been been rejected by the “Carol Burnett Show.” I overheard a couple of company insiders chatting at the post-show social gathering to the effect that “oh, yes, Chas had to pull every trick to wrench something out of the show.” It begs the question: why do the material if you feel that you have to tart it up to make it palatable to your public?

“Una Cost Rara” is perhaps today famous only for being quoted in “Don Giovanni.” However, having premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 17 November 1786, it rapidly supplanted Mozart’s operas in popularity and remained a solid hit for some decades thereafter. This must be owing not only to the simple and accessible melodies and arias, but also to the sassy plot of peasant love trumping royal aspirations.

Back to the production at hand, through much of Act One I was thinking this was more a college opera workshop production than a front rank festival offering. Only the fine baritone Keith Phares displayed the finished voice and presence of an artist in the (deserved) beginnings of a major career. Cutting a handsome figure, he managed to internalize the comedy and make us care about the shepherd “Lubino’s” plight, all the while singing with secure technique and beauty of tone.

The rest of the cast started more unevenly, saddled as they were with gamely performing director-imposed “funny” business. The program note proclaimed this approach to be farce but it was characterized neither by consistent pacing nor effortless clowning, seeming at most times forced. Or perhaps “farced?”

“Queen Isabella” as impersonated by Mary Wilson seemed a cross between a cigarette-wielding Bette Davis and Lucille Ball in search of a punch line. While she was an audience favorite, I felt that her first entrance lacked vocal star presence, and top notes sung at mezzo-forte turned thin. However, she grew in stature as the evening progressed and her full-voice singing in Act Two provided much pleasure, even if those pesky softer high notes remained a bit edgy to my ears. Her son “Prince Giovanni” was very well-taken by young Alek Schrader, who used his smooth lyric tenor to poured out some beautiful long-winded runs in a wonderful aria, reminiscent of “Il Mio Tesoro.”

Maureen McKay turned in quite a spunky performance as “Lilla,” a shepherdess whose clumsy “Bo Peep” owed as much to “Cinderella” in “Into the Woods” as it did to Soler. She gamely took pratfalls, goofed around in a Martha-Graham-gone-bad dance parody, and all the while sang very nicely. She lavished beautiful phrasing on her lovely (and blessedly still) second act aria, which could have been written for “Susanna” in “Figaro.”

The secondary Love Couple, the farmer “Tita” and his fiancee “Ghita” were embodied with tireless flouncing about and considerable vocal skill by bass Matthew Burns and soprano Kiera Duffy. The latter has played “Despina” elsewhere and well, the vocal writing is so parallel that she seemed to be playing it again here! Mr. Burns’ savvy second banana proved a good foil to his slightly vacuous buddy “Lubino.”

Paul Appleby (valet “Corrado”) and David Kravitz (mayor “Lisargo”) essayed their character roles with solid commitment. It must be said that all of the singers displayed excellent English diction in communicating Hugh Macdonald’s translation of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. Although laced with a few anachronisms, and sporting more than a few lame jokes, this English version was sensible, accessible, and singable.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris (who also played harpsichord) conducted cleanly, although the lack of brilliant instruments in the orchestration coupled with the muted presence of the lower strings (see above) seemed to make the accompaniment a bit joyless, something the serviceable, unfamiliar score could ill afford. The featured Mandoline accompaniment was artfully provided by Richard Salvino.

A stage director friend often talks about “The Distractor Factor,” that is, extraneous stage business, props, costumes, etc. that distract from the flow/intent of the piece and take us out of the moment. His “TDF” meter would have remained in the red for most of this show for it seemed nothing but distractions.

The background is a false proscenium askew with tilted windows and hidden doors. This textured wall is first lit in green, then lavender. The floor is covered with Kelly and Hunter green stripes. Oh, yeah, placed on top of this for some reason are numerous pink flamingos, used for weak sight gags way past their “sell-by” date. At one point, the soprano literally gives the “Prince” the bird. Six of them, in fact. An anachronistic bit with a gramophone “playing” the muffled off stage choruses missed the mark. Once the flamingos were unceremoniously toted off, pink chairs were lined up for a sort of Mad Hatter Tea Party effect, each seating a stuffed animal. The “Queen” takes a sock puppet monkey and caresses it at length. (There is a “spank the monkey” joke here somewhere that was mercifully foregone.)

Arias that were probably well sung and might have given musical pleasure were upstaged by more “funny” business:

“Ghita” pulls up carrots and cabbages while “Tita” solos. “Lilla” coarsely eats an apple, dropping bits and chunks all over herself and the stage as a sister soprano chirps on unnoticed. “Lubino” takes his shepherd’s crook and yanks stuffed rolling sheep on stage while he and “Tita” sing a duet to which no one pays attention. A garden gnome is plopped in the “vegetable patch,” a cumbersome piece that the servants later have to wrestle offstage. And these same extras assemble and dissassemble a picket fence in three sections to no great purpose, in front of “Lilla” as she sings an aria. As if this weren't enough, musical integrity, rhythmic pulse, and dramatic pacing were consistently compromised by self-inflicted, meaningless, just-plain-wrong pauses.

This, my friends, is “The Distractor Factor” elevated to an unprecedented art form.

I mostly liked the (mostly) garish camp costumes by Clint Ramos well enough, with the exception of the broad-rimmed straw hat on “Ghita” at her entrance which made her very hard to light well, and kept us at a distance from getting to know her. Otherwise, Mark McCullough’s lighting was again effective and well-cued.

I feel that there is a much much better piece in Soler’s gentle opus than we were allowed to experience. I kept thinking what it might be like with, say, Bartoli and Dessay and Damrau blazing through these pleasant tunes. Or if a university group cast it with their best and brightest and mounted it with the conviction that it is in fact a stage worthy piece. As it is, the St. Louis production team seemed not to have read the whole title:

“A Rare Treasure, or . . .Beauty. . .and Honesty.” Would that they had.

James Sohre

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