Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ridiculous Trumps Sublime

Two operatic experiences this week left me with radically different feelings. The very worthy production of the very worthy Wozzeck left me feeling empty and depressed. The man in the balcony box next to me said it is his favorite opera; Maestro Levine loves this opera and conducted with verve and enthusiasm that belied his physically compromised condition; an opera-loving friend of mine tells me that over the years she has come to appreciate it. But it isn’t something she would choose to listen to at home, nor would I. It is rare for me to miss my Saturday afternoon worship at the shrine of the Met Saturday broadcasts but I did.

One cannot fault the casting or vocal performances. Venerable baritone Alan Held turned in a truly dedicated performance as the titular (anti)hero while the estimable Waltraud Meier did the same as Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife. Wozzeck is the troubled soldier living in penury and exploited by his captain, sung by tenor Gerhard Siegel and humiliated by the doctor, sung by bass Walter Fink. The playwright Georg Buchner, on whose play the libretto is based, would have us believe that these conditions, amplified by Marie’s infidelity, culminated in Wozzeck’s madness. To me it seems that other soldiers survived similar conditions and that Wozzeck was off the wall from the start. He is a pitiable creature in either case but not someone a member of the audience can identify with, at least not this member.

Berg’s twelve-tone music is devoid of melody and tonality, a turn I wish classical music had never taken. It falls harshly on the ears; perhaps it is meant for the brain and not the heart.

Sets and costumes by Robert Israel are appropriate to the period, drab and spare. Direction by Gregory Keller is apt in this Mark Lamos production which one could call passionate and dramatic but not enjoyable.

Now, what about the second experience? Never having seen Oscar Straus’ (not from the famous Strauss family) “The Chocolate Soldier”, and fearing never having another opportunity, we dragged ourselves up to The Liederkranz Opera Theatre on a miserably rainy night. We arrived wet, windblown and grumpy and we left smiling and happy. No one famous sang and the “orchestra” comprised a piano and percussionist (Ben Krauss and Luke Short). The room is most unsuitable to operatic performance and the sightlines are apalling.

So how to account for the joyous feeling? For starters, Mr. Strauss wisely used Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” as a source for the libretto by Rudolf Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson. That’s almost as good as using Shakespeare. The libretto has been adapted into English by Philip A. Kraus and Gregory Opelka with further adaptation and revision by Elizabeth Hastings, the musical director of the Liederkranz Opera Theater. Having enjoyed her work in the past, I have a feeling that she is responsible for much of the success. The libretto hews rather closely to the play until the end, but the departure is not significant in terms of making the point that in making romantic choices, women are often dazzled by appearance and reputation and need to be shaken out of their poor choices. In this case the foolish woman is Nadine, daughter of the Bulgarian Colonel Popoff, who is engaged to the pompous conceited Major Spiridoff but eventually won by a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian army, with whom the Bulgarians are at war.

It is 1885, a period remote by a quarter century from the time this operetta was composed, which is an entire century removed from today’s audience, but the work is presented with sincerity and totally without irony, so we believe it 100%. The performers all did justice to their roles but special mention must be made of Nicholas Wuehrmann who convincingly seduced all three women in the household and thereby the audience. Charlotte Detrick sang Nadina and Mascha portrayed her flirtatious naughty cousin Mascha (a servant in the original play) with style, charm and a clear bright soprano. Papa Popoff was sung by C. David Morrow who injected generous humor into his portrayal. Mama Aurelia was sung by Barbara LeMay who sang well but appeared too young and beautiful to have a marriageable daughter.

A troupe of Keystone Kop-like soldiers were led by Captain Massakroff, sung by Cory Clines, and hilariously choreographed by Roberta Cooper. In spite of a tiny stage, the direction by Corin Hollifield made everything work. The only fault one could find was the timing of the second intermission which left the third act with nothing but a denouement.

Now, what about the music? It is lavishly tuneful and completely satisfying. What more could one want? Although my preference is for German, the English worked extremely well with the music. There were many similarities to works by Gilbert and Sullivan with clever rhymes in abundance. Altogether a most satisfying performance. I’ll take the ridiculous over the sublime.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider


  1. I am delighted that the audience had as much fun watching The Chocolate Soldier as we did putting it on. If I may make two emendations:
    Katie Travis sang the role of Mascha, and Elizabeth Hastings played the piano (in addition to the keyboard and percussion players listed in the program).
    I hope you will come back and see our next production in the Fall.
    Elizabeth Hastings, Music Director, Liederkranz Foundation

  2. I am so happy that the audience had as much fun watching The Chocolate Soldier as we did putting it on. If I may make two emendations:
    Katie Travis sang the role of Mascha, and Elizabeth Hastings played the piano (assisted by the two players listed in the program.)
    I hope you will come and see our Fall production!
    Elizabeth Hastings, Music Director, Liederkranz Foundation

  3. Thanks so much for the corrections, Liz! I would love to see the fall production so please keep us up to date!