Monday, July 25, 2011

Women on the Verge

Once again, to serve you, my adoring public, I hit the road on Sunday to enjoy some opera and to write about it. I ventured deep into the Garden State to see Opera New Jersey's presentation of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul Sunday afternoon, as well as their presentation of a staged reading of Thomas Pasatieri's new work The Family Room Sunday evening. Both were at the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University.

Mr. Menotti's The Consul was first performed in 1950. The story takes place in an unnamed European country, where John Sorel, a political dissident, is forced to escape the Secret Police of his country's oppressive regime, and his wife Magda must jump the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to obtain a visa to emigrate to the country where Sorel expects to find protection. Needless to say, it doesn't end happily.

Magda's aria
Photo by Michael Schweikardt
I'm all about the singing, but I must mention how visually stunning the production was, thanks to designer Michael Schweikardt and costume designer Patracia A. Hibbert. Before the downbeat, one was impressed with a wall of file drawers as high as the proscenium. Knowing something about the opera, I found this quite meaningful, but someone who didn't know the opera still would have found it beautiful. A large center section of this wall was raised to reveal the Sorels' shabby apartment, but remained in place as the back wall of the consulate. The drawers on the non-moving sections were fully functional, and used for both the apartment and consulate sets. The costumes were representative of the Cold War period of the opera's creation. Although overall they were very effective, I have to nit-pick and mention how some didn't seem to fit well, and some of the ladies seemed to have shoes above their stations in life. Wigs and makeup by Amy Wright of Elsen Associates were also quite effective.

Vocally there was not a dud in the bunch. The standout of any successful production of The Consul is going to be Magda Sorel, and I have to say it holds true with this production. Lina Tertriani is a lovely young soprano, and quite equal to the vocal challenges of the role, although there were times in Act I when the orchestra overpowered her. She was showered with well-deserved shouts of "Brava!" at the conclusion of her aria "To this we've come". This scene gave us her most committed acting. At some other times she seemed to interact dramatically with the conductor more than her fellow cast members.

Another standout was Audrey Babcock as the Secretary. Her singing was beautiful and her acting showed a great spark. She quite effectively showed that the prim and indifferent persona of the Secretary was not her only persona. Joyce Castle's Mother also gave us the strong performance of a veteran performer, one who has lived with this role a number of times. Her Lullaby in Act II was stunning, and the trio between the Mother, Magda and John in Act I took my breath away. Nicholas Pallesen sang the role of John Sorel beautifully and gave us a picture of his conflict between duty to his family and duty to his political ideals. Smaller roles were very well filled by members of Opera NJ's Victoria J. Mastrobuono Emerging Artists Program. Of these Nathan Wilson was a standout as Mr. Kofner.

In the pit was Joel Revzen with the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra. I've said before that I tend to notice an orchestra more if there are problems than if they are playing superbly, and I have to say that only a few times in Act I did it seem as if they overpowered the singers. Otherwise the sound was beautiful and lush, and Mr. Revzen seemed to communicate with the singers well. Stage director was Michael Unger. I give him kudos for some excellent choreography of stage motion, and for the remarkably smooth and well-rehearsed scene changes executed by lesser cast members. As my opera-going companion remarked, however, those were his strengths. My friend wanted more connected, more committed acting from some of the singers, and said he had the feeling that those who excelled in that department likely would do so under any director.

After a dinner at a local micro-brewery restaurant, where the aforementioned companion, who is well over 30, was asked for identification when ordering beer but I was not--not that I'm bitter!--we returned to the McCarter Theatre for a staged reading of The Family Room, a new opera by composer Thomas Pasatieri and librettist Daphne Malfitano, starring sopranos Lauren Flanigan and Catherine Malfitano. (The librettist is an accomplished writer, and also the daughter of the soprano.) Composer, librettist, stars and others involved generously took part in a question and answer session after the 70-minute single act was over.

The story is of two women living alone in a shabby room, speaking about homey scenes of family life that are such a contrast to the current conditions, the audience must wonder what is fantasy and what is reality. Although by the end of the opera we have learned a lot we didn't expect to learn about these women and their lives, librettist Daphne Malfitano made it clear in the question and answer session that audience members are expected to draw their own conclusions.

Lauren Flanigan
Catherine Malfitano
Misses Flanigan and Malfitano showed us why they are considered legendary singing actresses. They each gave us their own character's wide range of emotions, from tenderness to anger to very raw fear. Mr. Pasatieri's score gave us that raw emotion in abundance, but also lilting moments of tenderness, moments both lyrical and dramatic. I would call this new opera a success, and I do hope to see it produced again. Although this performance benefitted from the beautifully skillful piano accompaniment of Christopher Cooley, Mr. Pasatieri has orchestrated the score for a small orchestra of instrumental soloists, and I hope to hear that version performed.

So willing am I to serve you, my adoring public, that I braved the indignity of a trip to New Jersey. (In truth it was a terrific day, but we won't talk about that.) All I ask in return is that you click on the advertising links and do the shopping you already do starting at my store. Is that so much?

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