Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Masterpiece Theater

It’s a hit, it is, Stephen Schwartz’ “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” at New York City Opera. If you love opera, go see it. If you don’t love opera, go see it. It could change your mind. So much contemporary opera is tedious and you only go because the critics make much of them (not this critic); you go and TRY to get involved but leave feeling empty and quite sure you never want to see them again. Sometimes the story is a good one but the music doesn’t add anything; worse yet, it detracts. Vocal lines are missing in action and sung dialogue sounds pretentious.

Not so here. Mr. Schwartz’ music, conducted by the reliable George Manahan, will make your ears happy with its compelling melodies and rich orchestration. Characters actually have arias that underscore their emotions. Even the sprechstimme and sung dialogue follows the rhythms of the English language, convincing me that perhaps English is not as unsingable as I suspected. Moreover, it does its job of emphasizing the psychological undercurrents and painting with sympathy some pretty monstrous characters. The libretto was adapted by Schwartz from a 1964 British film which was, in turn, based on a 1961 novel by Mark McShane. It is a disturbing psychological thriller about a talented medium who yearns for greater recognition and involves her devoted husband in a horrifying plan.

As performed by the incomparable soprano Lauren Flanigan, this pathetic and monstrous woman, so needful of love and devotion, is made completely believable and worthy of our sympathy. LIkewise baritone Kim Josephson fills out the character of the husband so we care equally for him as he vacillates between his desire to please his wife and his weakening moral sense. Tenor Todd Wilander and soprano Melody Moore turn in fine performances as a concerned set of parents. Children Bailey Grey and Michael Kepler perform their roles without a shred of self-consciousness. A chorus of journalists is introduced by jazzier music.

The story moves along briskly, thanks to the nimble direction of Scott Schwarz, son of the composer, who directed the work at its Santa Barbara premiere a year and a half ago. A most attractive and functional set was designed by Heidi Ettinger. Set behind a curtain of chains is a revolving two-story Victorian townhouse in San Francisco. We have visual access to living room, kitchen, foyer and bedroom. David Lander provided eerily effective lighting. Seances took place in front of the chain curtain. Costumes by Alejo Vietti were completely appropriate to the early 60’s.

It seems clear that Mr. Schwarz the elder, composer of such musical theater hits as “Godspell”, “Pippin” and “Wicked” has used his extensive Broadway experience to create a work that thrills and entertains but is never shallow. May he write many more such works for our delight. Get thee to New York City Opera without delay. You snooze you lose.

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

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