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A CurtainUp Opera Review
By Elyse Sommer
Much of what's new about operas written during the last half century or so, entails the use of nineteenth and twentieth century literary greats like Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as sources, instead of Shakespeare and other earlier authors. The American novel and play inspired novels are generally written in English which, unlike the romance languages, tends to impose constraints on the vocal flourishes that make for stick-in-your-mind arias common to works by Verdi, Mozart and Rossini. The language and generally less spectacular scale of these operas call for a commitment by opera impresarios to regularly include these works in the annual schedule rather than relying on the "safe" crowd pleasers.
Robert Ward operatized The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1962). In Claudia Legare, a 1970s commission by the New York City Opera, Ward besides making Hedda Gabler by Miller's literary father, Henrik Ibsen, sing, Ward also Americanized it by setting in post Civil War South Caroline. But though Ward and Miller are contemporaries and both Pulitzer Prize winners (Ward for The Crucible and Miller for Death of a Salesman), Miller has enjoyed almost unbroken fame and recognition, while Ward's operas have fallen into obscurity. Several feathers should therefore be added to the DiCapo Opera Theater's already fully-feathered cap for twice giving new life to Ward's operas -- The Crucible in 1995, and now Claudia Legare.
While it has a cast of just seven, Claudia Legere does boast three sopranos and John Farrel's set design evokes a feel of old Southern mansion grandeur. The melodrama of the rebellious, malcontented but tradition-bound General's daughter who married a man she disdains for convenience translates well to the South Carolina setting.
If you don't poke too many holes into George's being a New South planner instead of an academic, his plan for restoring the South to its former glory and Orlando Beaumont's (originally Eilert Lovborg) more industrial-minded counter plan, Librettist Bernard Stambler (who has collaborated with Ward in the past) adapted the characters' personalities and problems with remarkable fidelity to the original. Perhaps a bit too well since a really gripping adaptation, especially when you shift from straight play to through-sung opera needs to translate into a new experience rather than a re-creation. Claudia Legare, despite the changed background, offers little new or exciting in the way of role interpretation.
Of course, this being an opera, the real test here is the music and there's much here to enjoy. The three sopranos have powerful voices -- Susan Foster as the title character, Mechelle Tippets as Aunt Julia and Kathleen Theisen as the Claudia's schoolmate who also loves Orlando but is clearly less afraid to do something about it. However, the two younger women, and especially Ms. Foster, seem to push rather than seamlessly hit the most emotional high notes.
The orchestral passages are quite lovely. The singing seems at its best when most of the ensemble is engaged, though Claudia's dream duet with her dead father (sung off-stage by Robert Pagani), is very appealing. The words which in many English language operas often require super titles, are delivered with admirable clarity.
Of the men Gary Lehman as Orlando Beaumont fares best both in terms of his acting and singing. While I'm a fan of pocket-sized musicals, this most underpopulated of all Dicapo productions I've seen seems to take much of the first act to gain real momentum. John Farrell's handsome set is ably lit by Susan Roth to show the change from day to night to early morning. Angela Huff's costumes, on the other hand, are not only unattractive but unflattering. This last is especially true of Claudia's bright red dress which clashes with the maroon upholstery (perhaps intentionally to underscore, her being so at odds with her situation?).
Speaking of that upholstery, the director obviously has never done much housecleaning or he would not have Jenny, the maid, apply her feather duster intended for use on wood and moldings to the couch and pillows. Another staging quibble, giving both Claudia and Daphne the same loose, teased hair styles rather than the chignons and corkscrew curls typical of the era, underscores a minor but odd lapse from the overall realistic staging.
Di Capo will round out its season with an opera geared to satisfy more traditionally lyrical tastes, Verdi's La Traviata (April 1 to 10th). If Little Women, the new musical that is about to have its official Broadway opening as I write this review, is a success, perhaps next year's contemporary theater related DiCapo opera will be the opera version of Louisa May Alcott's famous novel.
Readers wanting a more detailed synopsis of Claudia Legare will find it at the end of the production notes below. For some of the numerous non-singing adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that have made their way to New York stages, check out the following links:
Hedda in a radical modern take .
A traditional revival with Kate Burton as Hedda.
Another traditional revival in a site-specific mansion setting .
An all-male camp version .
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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Go here for details and larger image.