Two New American Works

Based on the play by Racine
By Memri Innerarity
By Charles Kuskin
Libretto by Jane Nakashima
Golden Fleece Ltd./The Composers Chamber Theatre
Musical director Gary M. Schneider
Stage director Lou Rodgers
Sanford Meisner Theatre
Non-union production (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Oobr doesn't get to much opera, and that is a pity. The form is highly theatrical and thus grist for our mill.

This double-bill of short operas ran scarcely 90 minutes but showed a high level of professionalism in writing and performance, at least to an ear and eye more attuned to non-operatic theatrical works. It is amazing to listen to ensemble singing in which all the words are understandable and shaded by musical technique. The Broadway musical, in which over-amplified singers engage in an ever-escalating battle of the bands with teams of equally amplified musicians, comes off by comparison as an exercise in Mutually Assured Destruction. It is hard to believe any meaning can survive the wall of sound emanating from everywhere but the singers' mouths.

Phaedra purports to be a performance, presumably of the Racine play, at the theatre in the Chateau of the Contesse de Marigny in the Loire Valley, in 1810. Whether the double layer of meaning imposed by having singer Theresa Snyder portray the Contesse portraying Phaedra - rather than just have her play Phaedra directly - adds anything to the impact is disputable. The historical reference permitted a grandiosity of gesture that suggested an earlier time but repelled the spectator from more involvement with the characters. For example, the lust felt by Phaedra for her stepson sounded authentic but wasn't imbued with the sense of fatal attraction that lends the story its fascination and potential for horror. (The acting technique, while not subtle, was more refined than the horror stories told about famous tenors who have to be wheeled into position on stage like MX missiles, before delivering their "nessun dorma" payloads.)

All the singer/actors, nonetheless, did a solid job putting over their numbers, ably backed up by the ensemble (Jessie Reagen, Catherine Cahill, and Andrew Austin on cello, clarinet, and electric keyboard, respectively). In particular, Michelle Menick as Oenone, Phaedra's nurse, showed great clarity of diction and a high musical expressiveness. Deborah Schmidt, Marco Matuté, and John Nelson offered solid interpretations of Aricia, a young hostage; Hippolytus, the object of Phaedra's love; and Theseus, the absentee cuckold and Hippolytus's father. The listenable but far from simple score balanced dissonance with melody.

More discreet musically but more dramatic was a domestic drama of a different kind, Floating, much of which takes place in the (female) protagonist's head. It offered a more compelling portrait of a married woman's mind going off the rails. Anne (Beth Fischer) has been brought to the hospital in a coma, covered in blood. While her daughter (Deborah Schmidt) and son (Lawrence Cummings) respectively try to communicate with her or give up on doing so, she revisits in her ever-active mind the events, mostly in her kitchen, that led to her comatose state. Those events are the history of an abusive marriage that leads her to kill her husband (played with a rare combination of violence and sympathy by Mark Peters). Anne Jacobs and Lee Rosen played the the Nurse and the Detective, respectively. The ensemble was the same, with the exception of violinist Meira Silverstein instead of a cello.

Both works got by with the minimum of staging, though Phaedra had some vaguely classical costumes and colorful scrims. The emphasis was on music multiplying the expressiveness of words, and that's what opera is all about. (Set design LouAnne Gilleland; lights, David M. Shepherd.)

Box Score:

Music: 1/Libretto: 1
Directing: 1
Singing: 2/Playing: 2/Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 John Chatterton