Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sorcery is Pungent Business

Your intrepid reporter braved the ice and snow of Yonkers and Manhattan on Saturday, Jan. 21, to witness more opera and to report on it.  (OK, so it was only 3 inches.  A lot can be made of 3 inches. Shut up.)  What he saw was a production of The Poisoned Kiss by Mr. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), an opera that has long languished in obscurity.  The production was by the Bronx Opera, performed at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.  (Which is not in the Bronx, if you're keeping score.)

According to the program notes by Michael Spierman, Artistic Director of Bronx Opera, The Poisoned Kiss was first performed in 1936, but did not see any other productions until Mr. Vaughan Williams completed a revised version in 1957.  It fell back into obscurity until Mr. Spierman, along with his son, stage director Ben Spierman, revived it for this production. With any luck it will return to obscurity.  The story of the opera comes from a short story by Richard Garnett, which was in turn based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Rappaccini's Daughter."  In a (typically convoluted) nutshell, Dipsacus, a magician, has brought up his daughter Tormentilla to unwittingly kill Amaryllus, the son of the Empress Persicaria, with their first shared kiss, knowing the two would meet and fall in love as young adults--a scheme of vengeance because his own love for the Empress back in the day had been thwarted by her family.  It all ends happily, however.  The story and many of the musical numbers reminded me of 1930s movie musicals, so I wasn't surprised to read in the notes that Mr. Vaughan Williams "conceived the opera as a romantic extravaganza, an amalgam of genres combining the Mozartean singspiel of The Magic Flute, the English operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and musical comedy."
Soprano Hanna Rosenbaum

There is a lot to like in this opera.  Of course, the music of Mr. Vaughan Williams is beautiful.  It will appeal to those who are only familiar with his "Fantasia on Greensleeves" or "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", but also to those like me, who are  big ol' church music queens afficionados of Anglican church music and know his choral and organ music.  I must confess I'd never seen one of his operas before, although Bronx Opera has produced both Sir John in Love and Hugh the Drover twice.  (Although only one of those four performances took place after I came to NYC in 1991.)

Vocally, there was not a dud in the bunch.  The four main characters comprised a sort of Belmonte / Pedrillo / Konstanze / Blondchen quartet. The servant pair, Gallanthus and Angelica, were played by handsome baritone Jeremy J. Moore (Barihunks, are you paying attention?) and charming mezzo Cabiria Jacobsen.  Both sang beautifully and acted with great spirit and verve.  Ms. Jacobsen's Scottish accent was best accent in the whole cast.  (That's one of several missteps by director Ben Spierman.  The accents were not necessary, in my opinion.)  Amaryllus was portrayed with earnest beauty by tenor Kirk Doughterty, and his lover Tormentilla (whose name makes me want Mexican food) was played by Hannah Rosenbaum, who really needs to get a web site like her peers have, to showcase her beautiful singing and commendable accomplishments.

Bass-baritone Richard Bozic sang with beauty of tone and august authority as Dipsacus.  His three henchmen, sort of a magical Larry, Moe, and Curly (actually Hob, Gob, and Lob), were played with enthusiasm by tenor Gilad Paz, baritone Nicholas Provenzale and bass Robert C. Joubert (two more for Barihunks to watch for).  I would not have been surprised if the trio had suddenly broken into "Brush Up Your Shakespeare".  In true 1930s British movie musical form, Empress Persicaria was played quite imperiously by Leslie Swanson.  One could almost imagine the role having been written for Dame Clara Butt or Margaret Dumont.

The orchestra, led by Mr. Spierman the elder, played inoffensively, and the chorus, well prepared by Michael Haigler, sang its thankless music while enduring a lot of stage business I might not have included.  The sets by Meganne George, the lighting by Jim Elliott, and the projections by Eamonn Farrell were quite lovely, as were the costumes by Meg Zeder.  (One wonders, however, why a great amount of money was spent on sets and costumes, and yet the female lead appears to have been wearing the same dress for days on end.)

I'm actually quite glad I saw this production.  I'm happy to have heard the beautiful singing.  The opera itself?  Let's let it rest on the shelf for another 50 years or so.

1 comment:

Gale Martin said...

Well done. Thank you for such a well-detailed (and fun-to-read) review. "...big ol' church music queens" A stitch.