Let me say at the outset that James Yannatos’s two-act Rocket’s Red Blare, in the opera buffa tradition, is richly rewarding on many levels. The production I heard, a collaboration between the Intermezzo New England Opera Series and the Juventas New Music Ensemble, was the second of two performances presented at the Agassiz Theatre, on October 1 and 2. I also attended the presentation before the opera by Yannatos, Intermezzo’s conductor Edward Jones, set designer William A. Fregosi, and stage director Kirsten Z. Cairns. This was useful to understand and appreciate the choices made for this production, as it underlined the creative artistic compromises due to lack of funding.
The libretto tells a story set in a mythical kingdom “not quite so far away,” or, as the court Jester puts it, “long away and far ago.” The issue is conformity, political and otherwise. The five main characters comprise the Jester (Charles Blandy) who is both in, and commenting on the drama, King Pomposo III (David Kravitz), Queen Zealosa (D’Anna Fortunato), a Prince/boy (Gregory Zavracky), and The Girl (Natalie Polito). All but Blandy are members of Intermezzo. Two rocket scientists (Jonathan Price and Taylor Homer) appear and offer to do away with whatever foes there may be with their (imaginary) rockets. It turns out that not only are there no rockets, but also no foes, rather only the foolishness of the King and the Queen. The Jester tries to orchestrate a happy ending (they are expected, after all, in fairy tales), but the Prince, roused from his focus on cooing with The Girl, finally realizes that the solution is “to simply be,” in harmony. There are various other supporting characters, not all of whom sing, and a chorus of nine assuming the roles of citizens. The well-balanced chamber orchestra of fourteen, including electric piano, sported only one member of Juventas, cellist Rachel Arnold; none had performed with Intermezzo.
Yannatos, who directed the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra for over 40 years, had originally written this opera for a performance at the Loeb Theatre in 1972. Unhappy with the heavy-handed staging, Yannatos literally shelved it, but in 2008 completely rewrote it. Kravitz brought it to the attention of Intermezzo, and hence this performance. The set was minimal: black curtains over which seven banners with slogans from earlier times hung down: “Ask not what you can do for your country . . . ,” “Yes we can,” “A kinder, gentler nation,” &c.; at the conclusion, “Make Love, Not War” flopped down unexpectedly. A puppet theater was rolled on and off stage at various times and manipulated a bit to suggest scene changes. The director decided to open the opera with the children settling down for a bedtime story in their pajamas. They then become characters (the citizens) in the opera (still in their pajamas) with their storybooks (i.e., the chorus scores) in hand, because, as Cairns explained, there was no money either for their costumes or to pay them to memorize their parts. The orchestra members also wore pajama bottoms and socks without shoes, suggesting that they, too, were citizens of the fairy land, and further integrating the production. In any case they seemed to enjoy the fun. Only the principal characters wore costumes suggestive of far ago (although The Girl wore modern high heels with her peasant dress). D’Anna Fortunato’s wig was simply amazing (thanks to wig master Don Swenson). The three Courtiers (Thomas Oesterling, Paul Soper, and John Whittlesey) wore suits and large sunglasses..
Does all this sound a little gemischt? You betcha, in the most delightful, purposeful way. If the earlier production was “heavy-handed,” this one was surely “light-handed” in keeping with the alternate humor and seriousness, and certainly the timelessness of the messages offered.
Director Cairns mentioned that the music was difficult, but there was no sign of that from the performers. Baritone Kravitz (King) and mezzo-soprano Fortunato (Queen) sang and acted their roles, as is their custom, perfectly into their characters, with the confidence their long experience yields. Charles Blandy (Jester) sang from score, presumably to save costs as he is not an Intermezzo member, but he too managed the vagaries of his character with strong presence and a fine tenor voice. Tenor Gregory Zavracky (Prince/Boy) and soprano Natalie Polito (The Girl) have good voices, although Polito’s high pitches are so fat as to be almost non comprehensible at times; both lack the confidence and maturity of Kravitz and Fortunato, but they will get there.
Conductor Edward Jones may be known to readers as the Harvard University organist and choirmaster, and a fine one at that, but he also aspires to conduct opera, which he pursues at Harvard and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Agassiz Theatre has no pit, although there is a slightly raised stage. My seat was directly behind Jones on the same level. His directions to the instrumentalists and to the singers were crisp and clearly differentiated.
Yannatos is a fine craftsman: the music was perfect for this multilayered invention, yet in a classical style with respect to recitatives and arias. In particular I enjoyed the humorous use of the woodblock or snare drum to punctuate recitatives.
The audience for Sunday’s performance was skimpy, although there seemed to be more present during the second act — too much going on in Boston that particular day. But the minute the enthusiastic applause died, I heard voices behind me saying, “Great! Great! Well done!” I agree wholeheartedly. The choices Intermezzo made, given the funds, were not only sensible, but contributed to the magic of Yannatos’s vision; kudos to Intermezzo for making this effort and seeing it through. Nevertheless, I would still like to see this opera picked up by a company that could afford it.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.