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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
--- 1999 Review --- by Les Gutman
Readers who have been paying attention will know that Target Margin, the much-admired downtown theater company that specializes in the demystification of the seemingly inaccessible, has devoted its current season to climbing that Mount Everest of the performing arts, opera. First we had a blissfully impudent staging of Beaumarchais's play, The Marriage of Figaro (on which Mozart's opera is based). It was followed by a series of "laboratory" productions based on elements of Wagner's Ring Cycle. (The one I saw terrifically condensed and adapted the Siegfried story into a short musical with comic book characters and a live rock band.) For its season finale, the company now mounts The Sandman, a "real" original opera, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, with music by its composer-member, Thomas Cabaniss, and a libretto scripted collaboratively by Mr. Cabaniss, Douglas Langworthy (the company's dramaturg) and David Herskovits (its ever-inventive Artistic Director, who also serves as director of this production).
Instead of its usual band of performers, Target Margin has employed an able cast of opera singers. It's essential to the effort, for it is critical that it not come off as a parody of opera; it does not. Mr. Cabaniss has written a score that is quite lovely: tuneful, serious and at times quite moving. The cast of six, accompanied by a fine quartet of musicians, acquits the work beautifully, and mostly on a scale that is in keeping with the intimate confines of the acoustically less-than-perfect Connelly Theatre.
One should not go to The Sandman expecting operatic reverence from Mr. Herskovits and his cohorts, however. For while opera lovers will be impressed by what they hear, they will need to arrive with a sense of humor in tow, as they will see their precious conventions assaulted onstage. Likewise, those who think themselves allergic to opera will need to take a Claritin before they arrive but will be pleasantly surprised by how painless -- indeed enjoyable -- the experience is.
So who is the Sandman? He is one of those creatures of a child's nightmares that persists in haunting him into adulthood. He throws sand in the eyes of children who won't go to sleep, making their eyes pop out of their sockets.
Nathanael (Christian Sebek) writes to his girlfriend Clara (Rachel Mondanaro) about a terror from his childhood that is evoked by a visit from Coppola (Gregory Emmanuel Rahming), a man selling barometers. He thinks the man is really Coppelius (also Rahming); he also believes Coppelius killed his father and that Coppelius/Coppola is the Sandman.
Nathanael's unshakable torment causes a breakup with Clara. Later, he buys a spy glass from Coppola, and with it sees Olympia (Violetta Zambetti), with whom he falls in love. She turns out to be an automaton, a shock from which he passes out. When he awakens, he is again with Clara, although not for long. He will end up dead; she will live happily ever after.
Mr. Cabaniss has written an opera that seems at first blush relatively straightforward. But it is not in the nature of Target Margin to deliver it like that, and they don't. Barely a line into the libretto, stage hands are interrupting the proceedings to offer the first of many "translations" and annotations. Others will come by way of make-shift signs and banners. The sound board operator (Franklin Hundley), who is planted right on the stage, repeatedly turns on particularly un-operatic music every time there is a break in the action (frequently having to be reminded by the singers to adjust the sound); in the middle of what is probably Clara's major aria, he causes a commotion by dropping several CD jewel cases on the floor, and at another, pages from his copy of the script go flying onto the floor.
The libretto itself revels in poking fun at the nature of opera: choruses repeat inane words plucked from the mouths of the principal singers; some individual words are harped on musically for what seems like a full minute; and a sampling of Johnny Cash even sneaks its way into the effort. The direction is complicit, as when a great sight gag explains Nathanael's reading of an gold-covered invitation he has received, or when Nathanael's friend Siegmund (Jay Johnson) halts mid-line to correct his pronunciation of "Clara" -- opera demands that it be CLAH-rah.
One should not dismiss all of this as arrant silliness, or as unheard-of blasphemy. There is method to the madness: the production skewers the pretensions of the operatic form and sugars it with hysterical comedy without compromising the artistic integrity of the underlying work. In doing so, it follows the path of Victor Borge, consummate musician and comedian, who introduced classical music to the ears of many who surely eschewed Horowitz. Mr. Hundley, harried, seemingly inept, perplexed and put-upon, serves as the conduit between Borge and the signature irreverence of Target Margin.
The greatest risk in asking opera singers to act is that, stereotypically, they can't. Mr. Herskovits has assembled a game group, however, and while they may not quite mine all of the nuance and humor from the piece as exploitively as his usual band of actors, they make a respectable effort in that direction (as do some of the musicians, who are called upon to participate in the proceedings in ways to which they are surely unaccustomed.)
And they can sing. Mr. Sebek is exceptional as Nathanael, in a role that makes enormous demands. Ms. Mondanaro's Clara is also quite notable, her booming mezzo so unthrottled I'm inclined (and hoping) it was an artistic choice. Ms. Zambetti's soprano is effective if somewhat less satisfying, and Mr. Rahming is outstanding in his malevolent dual roles. The remainder of the cast is solid, with Mr. Johnson coming closest the "getting" the Herskovitsian aesthetic.
Production values are particularly good. Erika Belsey's set, with its skeleton exposed, mirrors the prevailing sensibility of the piece, and is well lit by Lenore Doxsee. David Zinn's costumes are perfect.
In the end, all of those sounds are replaced by a well-deserved "bravo!"
LINK TO TARGET MARGIN'S PRODUCTION MENTIONED ABOVE
Crazy Day or The Marriage of Figaro
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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