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Stephen Schwartz [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]
29 Apr 2011

Séance on a Wet Afternoon

Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.

Stephen Schwartz: Séance on a Wet Afternoon

Click here for the cast list and other information relating to this production

Above: Stephen Schwartz [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]


But, despite what you may have read, Stephen Schwartz’s new opera is far from all wet. In fact, last weekend’s matinee at the David H. Koch Theatre was as much a success as it was a séance. NYCO’s East Coast premiere production of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based upon the novel by Mark McShane, epitomizes what the company stands for and points towards what opera in America can be. The staging is smart and engaging, the music is used to forward the drama, the singers are equally talented as actors and musicians, and the result is both emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking. So why, when there are $12 tickets available, are there empty seats?

For opera lovers, there is plenty to enjoy— pathos, demanding vocalism, and lush orchestration unlike what you would find on a Broadway stage. The music is accessible (yes, perhaps overly so), the acting polished, and the show definitely benefits from its Broadway pedigree. Whatever your proclivities or demographic, this art is meaningful and relevant, and it should not be missed.

Together, father and son team Stephen and Scott Schwartz (acting as composer/librettist and director, respectively) have created a compelling theatrical event. From the moment the curtain rises during the highly cinematic overture to reveal a stage hung with black metal chains, the audience is swept along in suspense by the music and drama (thanks, in large part, to the efforts of conductor George Manahan). Much of the first act takes place inside the home of the Bill and Myra Foster, and Heidi Ettinger’s set struck an ideal balance between an appropriately prosaic environment for the domestic drama and a space where uncanny things can happen. The transparent walls suffuse with color and light, then disappear altogether, and the audience’s perspective on the drama is allowed to shift as the house itself rotates.

As Myra and Bill Foster, a couple who conspires to kidnap a child in order to boost Myra’s career as a medium, Lauren Flanigan and Kim Josephson are ideally matched to both the material itself and to each other. It should come as no surprise that Flanigan excels here— she is a NYCO veteran and a powerhouse singing-actress. Kim Josephson, in his NYCO debut, matches her intensity and makes good use of the opera’s best material. Melody Moore, in the role of the kidnapped child’s mother, stands out as well. Were this production mounted on Broadway, Ms. Moore would undoubtedly be nominated for a Tony award. She meets every vocal and dramatic challenge and breathes life and individuality into a role which could easily be reduced to a trite stereotype. As with Mr. Josephson, Ms. Moore is making her company debut with this production and both artists exemplify the company’s success in its mission to bring compelling performances of new works to New York City audiences. Unfortunately, as Charles Clayton, tenor Todd Wilander did not live up to the standard set by his partner. He was vocally cautious and played every obvious emotion rather than establishing a connection with his excellent partner.

As a quartet of Myra Foster’s regular clients, Jane Shaulis, Pamela Jones, Doug Purcell, and Boyd Schlaefer played their individual parts with plenty of verve and worked well as an ensemble. Phillip Boykin brought vocal and physical gravitas to his role as the Inspector. The two children in the cast, Michael Kepler Meo and Bailey Grey, are both veterans on the stage and their performances were on par with their adult cohorts. The chorus of reporters was well-rehearsed by both chorus master Charles F. Prestinari and choreographer Matt Williams, but their material was largely irrelevant and repetitive.

As previously mentioned, this production is not without flaws. Inevitably, the singing is not as good as one would hear at the Metropolitan Opera next door, nor is the diction as good as that heard on Broadway. While there are many effective bits of theatrical magic (including bodies coming together to form a streetcar and a black-and-white portrait that gains color during an emotional aria), the overall drama of the piece is often undermined by Schwartz’s own libretto. For the most part, every bit of suspense in the plot is used to maximum effect but the scene in which Myra is in the room when the kidnapper (his own husband) calls the Claytons falls flat. Furthermore, Myra’s aria at the top of the second act hardly serves to develop the drama, the music, or her character and it could easily be cut.

All in all, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an exciting opera to watch, not only because of the suspenseful plot, but also because it speaks to the future of opera in America. Yes, the music lacks complexity but, just as not every movie is made to win an Academy Award, not every opera is meant to stand up to repeated listening. Séance is not an opera for the future in the sense that it will remain in the repertoire forever. Rather, the work itself and the quality of this production speak to a democratization of opera itself and the encouraging trend that, finally, American artists are adopting the genre as their own.

Alison Moritz

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