Monday, January 13, 2014

Very Malapropriate!

I had the privilege of seeing Bronx Opera's Sunday, January 12, performance of Kirke Mechem's The Rivals. The opera, based on British playwright Richard Sheridan's 1775 farce about the marriage market for wealthy and/or titled young men and women, was updated in the composer's own libretto to turn of the (20th) century Newport, Rhode Island. It was first performed at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theater in 2011 to great acclaim. (Mr. Mechem's first opera, Tartuffe [1980], is one of the most frequently performed operas by an American composer.)

Cabiria Jacobsen
Photo: Lisa Hancock 
The story is clever yet typical farce. The primary ingenue, Lydia, disdains her wealthy suitors, but rather is in love with a man she believes to be penniless. Her lover turns out to be wealthy beyond compare and, in his wealthy persona, the bridegroom her aunt has arranged for her. There are similar stories of deception and revelation for the other lovers, one of whom is Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, famous for her Yogi Berra-style mangling of the English language.

This was the opening performance for the Sunday cast. (The Saturday cast was featured in this New York Times review.) The characters, as brought to life by Benjamin Spierman's directing and the talents of this energetic young cast, were vivid, likeable, and richly defined. And, in nearly every case, one could understand exactly what was being sung. This is not always true when hearing opera sung in one's own language!

Patrick McNally
Because of the consistently high level of singing and acting, it is difficult to name standouts, but I can not fail to mention Lindsay Ohse as Lydia and Cabiria Jacobsen (last seen in these pages in Bronx Opera's Poisoned Kiss) as Julia. Both of these beautiful young women inhabited their roles with charm and gusto, and sang beautifully--Lydia the more naive and flighty ingenue and Julia the more sensible. As Lucy, Mrs. Malaprop's Despina-like maid, Allyson Herman also deserves mention for her saucy character and her skillful singing.

The gentlemen of the cast deserve even higher praise, for the opera seemed to give their characters more personality. Patrick McNally gave Jack Absolute, Lydia's dashing love interest, delightful swagger while lending his lush baritone to some of the most interesting vocal writing. Blake Friedman, seen in these pages before in LOTNY's Mitridate, was delightful as the overwrought Nicholas Astor, unsure of Julia's love for him, singing the passionate and soaring vocal lines with great ease.

Mrs. Malaprop was sung quite well by Julie De Vaere. Her many malapropisms would have benefitted from more clear enunciation. Her love interest was Baron von Hakenbok, portrayed with appropriate blust-o by C. David Morrow. Chad Cygan gave Jasper Vanderbilt (of the Kentucky Vanderbilts) great comic charm.

Production values were mostly very high. The Bronx Opera clearly has an admirable budget for costume and scene design. Qualms? A few. Perhaps because of the way the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College is set up, the orchestra at times overpowered the singers. There were some lighting effects that needed to be much more striking to be effective. I wondered why there were so many servants in some drawing room scenes--and also why the servants used the front door! But those minor points did not interfere with my enjoyment of the show, and I heartily recommend seeing one of the remaining performances.

The full Saturday cast, with Caroline Tye as Mrs. Malaprop
Photo:  A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY

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