Sunday, March 17, 2013

Have another glass of wine!

I had the pleasure Saturday evening of seeing the opening night performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's obscure comic opera The Reformed Drunkard, presented by Little Opera Theatre of NY. The 1760 opera was originally entitled L'ivrogne corrigé, and predates Mr. Gluck's masterpiece Orfeo ed Euridice by two years. A pair of young lovers tricks the girl's uncle into swearing off drink--and allowing them to marry, of course--by creating the illusion during one of his drunken stupors that he has died and is on trial for his sins. This production is in English, using a translation and adaptation by stage director Philip Schneidman and Ivana Mestrovic. Performances continue through March 26.

Lucas (Singer), Mathurin (Downen),
Cléon in disguise (Boley), Colette in disguise (Hoyes)
Photo by Tina Buckman, courtesy LOTNY
I am a great supporter of opera on this professional level, which gives young singers experience, resume credits, and a chance to be heard. The unpredictability and inconsistency are part of the fun, and one does occasionally hear truly outstanding voices, gain new insights from an unusual treatment of a well known opera, or hear rarely performed operas. LOTNY is at the upper end of this professional tier--many singers already have management and regional leading role credits, and the group appears to have an admirable budget for theater space, production and musical preparation, and promotion.

The show is double cast, and of the singers in Saturday's performance, there wasn't much to complain about. Even allowing for the typical first-performance-as-final-rehearsal phenomenon, much of it was quite delightful. I especially liked the pair of drunkards around whom the story centers--Mathurin, the young girl's uncle, played by tenor Brian Downen; and his friend Lucas, who also wants to marry the girl, played by baritone Matthew Singer. Both young men inhabited their roles with gusto and great energy, and sang beautifully. Mr. Downen especially had some delightful comic moments, and I liked him vocally very much. (He has some lovely clips at his web site that show more what he can do than this score did.) I first saw Mr. Singer in Opera Omnia's Giasone, and I was further charmed by his fine singing and acting Saturday night. Of all the roles, his seemed to suit his voice the best. And a great accolade for both--I understood every word they sang.

The problem? Every word they sang. My biggest complaint about this production was the English libretto by Mr. Schneidman and Ms. Mestrovic. It lacked poetry and subtlety. With a musical structure so square, one expected actual rhymes in the arias. Much worse, the English lines were very awkwardly set to the existing vocal lines. The effect was jarring and very much hindered my enjoyment of the show.

Mathurin (Downen) , Mathurine (Tonna)
Photo by Tina Buckman, courtesy LOTNY
I also wished the other singers had more gratifying vocal lines in their roles. (Mr. Gluck's vocal music was very different from that of the opera composers who followed him.) I last heard tenor Michael Boley at dear Regina Opera's Magic Flute last spring, and he continues to sing rather well. Although the character clearly was enjoyable to play, any tenor would have been bored with the role vocally. Candice Hoyes played the ingenue Colette and Anna Tonna played Mathurin's long-suffering wife Mathurine, and neither role was very interesting vocally.

Richard Owen led a small ensemble--a string quartet with oboe--through the score from the harpsichord, and the ensemble gained in steam and became quite good. Although at the beginning there seemed to be some timing issues with musical introductions and some nervous acting, for the most part I found the direction by Philip Schneidman adequate, although I was left with some unanswered questions--mostly about some of the the chandelier business. Set design was quite clever, using perhaps a third of the stage as orchestra space, with floor and walls completely black, while the remainder of the stage was a simple period drawing room set. The costumes were quite nice but seemed to suggest late 19th century. One wondered why.

Although I have quibbles, as an informed opera goer does about any show, I don't want to suggest I didn't enjoy the show. My companion for the evening, and indeed for many operas I see, was quite charmed by the entire show. To me that says more than any amount of raving or nit-picking I could do.

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