Opera Theatre St. Louis

Opera Theatre St. Louis Festival 2018

Seen June 7-9, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

An American Soldier, a new opera commissioned in its two-act form by OTSL, is a gripping musical drama that seems destined to find a permanent place in 21st Century programs.

Regina, the opera by Marc Blitzstein, based on Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, introduces great mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as a viperous villain. She takes to it as if she were born to play the opposite of the sweetheart roles she’s known for.

Patricia Racette is supported in her debut as a director by a ravishing performance in the title role by soprano Sydney Mancasola as Violetta Valéry in La Traviata.

Finally, Gluck’s classic Orfeo and Euridice was just Orfeo as I was able to see it as a patron’s medical emergency during the intermission required extended efforts by Webster Groves’ EMTs before the person could be moved. The extended delay led to a decision to cancel the second act (of just two). I was unable to stay in St. Louis for the next performance four days away.

On to the operas:

An American Soldier, with music by Huang Ruo and libretto by David Henry Hwang, would be an absorbing tragic drama if it were mythology. But it is the all-too-real story of 19-year-old Chinese-American soldier Danny Chen who committed suicide in Afghanistan after hazing abuse that reached beatings by his fellow soldiers. Rising young tenor Andrew Stenson, as Danny, gives his best performance of a number I’ve seen. Although he grew up in Minnesota, Stenson was born in Korea and adopted as a baby by American parents. So, I guess his Asian features enable him to pass as Chinese. Sort of.

In any case, he gives a strong performance singing and acting, starting from the opening scene in which, though dead and invisible to those in the room, he objects to the trial, saying he wants only to return to his unit. He sings to his mother in a moving semi-aria, and sets the scene that he will continue to dominate to the end.

Japanese-born Mika Shigematsu’s warm mezzo-soprano and effective acting made Chen’s mother real throughout. As his loyal girlfriend, Josephine, Kathleen Kim carries on as the link between Danny and his mother, who doesn’t read English. Kim has a truly lovely lyric soprano and petite stature that supported her role as a late teenager. She’s actually an established international star. She’s Korean-born like Stenson, but also grew up there and appears often in Korea. So none of the “Chinese” characters actually is played by a Chinese-American, but they are all effective so it doesn’t really matter.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges had us all squirming in our seats as Sgt. Aaron Marcum, the twisted platoon leader responsible for driving Pvt. Chen to his death. I don’t recall that he sang a note though his biography makes clear that he could. It isn’t easy to make more than 900 people at once hate you.

Huang Ruo’s music provides perfect support to the romantic moments, and avoids being just a sound track to a melodrama. The music calls for sensitive conducting, and it got that from Michael Christie.

Regina is the opera I most wanted to see, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is OTSL’s contribution to the Marc Blitzstein renewal that has been going on this year, and it also somewhat ties in with the Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration throughout the music industry this year. Bernstein was a strong supporter of Blitzstein and this opera.

After years and international fame as a good-girl sweetheart, Susan Graham, at 58, says in interviews that she is thoroughly enjoying being bad. At OTSL, one would swear she was born to do it.

The story: The Hubbard siblings, Ben, Regina and Oscar, have been working for years to “bring the mill to the cotton rather than the cotton to the mill.” Remember, this is around 1900 in southern Alabama when transportation was by horse or mule and wagon, so distance was important. They’re sure it would make them all very much richer. They’ve pooled their money, and gotten a share from Chicago businessman William Marshall who is guest at dinner as the opera opens. The problem is that a third of the money is expected from Regina’s husband Horace Giddens. He’s in hospital with a serious heart condition, and he’s shown no interest in contributing.

Let’s not get tied up in the story. The brothers and sister work diligently to undercut one another, but none better than Regina. She has to be at her evil best since women had close to no rights at the time, especially in terms of inheritance. Somehow, Miss Graham is able to put a hard edge on her silky mezzo.

Regina’s first coup is to increase her share of the projected profit by taking from younger brother, Oscar. He goes along if her daughter, Alexandra (fine young soprano Monica Dewey) will marry his son Leo, keeping the money in the family. She has no intention of doing that, and Leo (young tenor Michael Day) is far too immature to marry anyone. He works in the bank, however, and is able to learn that Horace Giddens has just the needed amount of money in bonds in his safe deposit box in the bank, and, eventually to steal them.

Renowned bass-baritone William Morris is Regina’s older brother, Ben. He’s the primary manipulator, but Morris’s talents may be somewhat under used.

Kristopher Irmiter is Regina’s husband. He manages to project strength even while near the death which we see on the tall staircase as Regina simply watches. That staircase, by the way, is the main scenery of the production. It extends nearly to the top of the stage, reaching some sort of cubby that we take as the second floor. Regina goes up and down it multiple times. Definitely a workout for Miss Graham.

Another major talent is soprano Susanna Phillips. She is Birdie, Oscar’s increasingly alcoholic wife. Her disappointment is that Oscar married her only to gain control of her family cotton plantation. She doesn’t really get adequate chance to display her vocal abilities. She was reported to be a major asset in rehearsals as she actually is from Alabama.

Blitzstein’s music is, what can I say?, suitable. His major talent is words, and his libretto, based on Hellman’s text, is close to perfect.

Regina is a modern masterpiece.

La Traviata is one of the most performed Verdi operas, and it‘s been subject to all manner of creative re-interpretations. Thankfully, Patricia Racette chose to play it straight in her debut as a director. Anyone who would read an opera report knows the story, but it doesn’t take long to tell. A beautiful young courtesan, still in her early 20s, falls in love but gives up her own happiness in the interest of a young woman she has never met.

Miss Racette, who has sung the role many—perhaps 100—times stresses, in interviews quoted in the press package, that her goal is to bring out the talents of the current Violetta Valéry rather “do it as I did it.” She found a wonderful talent to work with in Sydney Mancasola, a former Gerdine Young Artist. She truly is something special. She apparently keeps out of the sun as her pale complexion fits a young woman terminally ill with what used to be called consumption.

It was a concern that the iconic “sempre libera” aria would suffer in English translation, since all OTSL productions are in English, but the classic Edmund Tracey translation quickly put that to rest.

The chorus plays a major role in the action, but the principal characters are only three, and the quality of their performance determines the success of the production. Violetta, against her better judgement, accepts the attention of Alfredo, a provincial like herself, and they become lovers. So it calls for a tenor convincing enough to be that man. Geoffrey Agpalo, a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago chorus, who has been singing solo roles during the off season, was a pretty convincing Alfredo, but not so convincing that I could believe Violetta would fall in love with him.

The third principal is Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, usually referred to simply as Germont. His arias are major events in the opera as he sings, first of his saintly daughter, whose impending marriage is threatened by Alfredo’s liaison with a “fallen woman,” then of the provincial village that Alfredo has left. It is the sheer beauty of his songs that sways Violetta. I won’t beat around the bush: Joo Won Kang just wasn’t able to carry it off.

Orfeo and Euridice: This isn’t a review since I was able to see only half of the production. But it would be wrong to let this pass without saying how good mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano is as Orfeo. My first impression was: what a fine counter-tenor! She’s no such thing, of course, and was much stronger in the lower registers than a man’s falsetto, but I wish I could have heard her all the way through. The only appearance of Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, in the first half was her giant portrait as the opening is her funeral. I’ve heard and admired her several times.

What we did get to see was the dancing of Big Muddy Dance Company in a new collaboration with OTSL. It was a major event since the challenge of Orfeo is to penetrate the monstrous Furies, who guard the underworld. All in red, with flowing capes, the dance company is the Furies. At times it was maybe a little campy, but I enjoyed it, and the audience seemed to as well. Unidentified, but I’m sure two of the dancers appeared in the second party scene in La Traviata. Chorus members couldn’t have done what they did.

The new English translation, by Amanda Holden was commissioned by OTSL.

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