In an unusual double bill, MetroWest Opera paired Puccini’s Suor Angelica with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in economical stagings at Brookline’s All Saints Church. A four-night-run culminated in the performances I heard Sunday afternoon. The hub is alive with the sound of opera these days, MetroWest’s outing being only the latest among offerings which will continue from BEMF, Boston Opera Collaborative, Boston Summer Opera and the Nahant Music Festival.
MetroWest in many ways accomplished its commitment to producing a professional operatic experience for rising stars, especially if one includes conductor Lidiya Yankovskya and her players. Company founder Dana Lynn Schnitzer Varga took good advantage of the problematic space, especially in Suor Angelica, through the efforts of director Casandra Lovering and Mike Bromberg’s lighting design.
As we arrived, the habited nuns were performing their offices and oblations in the conveniently available choir stalls, at the altar and in the pulpit; Puccini’s Angelus chimes signaled the start of the show. Most of the action took place at four covered card tables in the very slightly raised transept platform. The all-female cast of 28 veiled sisters and very pregnant novices (all looking to be in their sixth month) made beautiful choral sounds and took more than adequate short solo turns. The Sister Angelica of Michelle Trainor was the standout. She projected a compelling vocal glamour at every level of delivery and traced the characters disintegration with complete engagement and believability. This is what Italian opera is about. The last ten minutes of the production featuring Angelica’s interaction with the evil stepmother/princess of an extremely haughty and colorful contralto Jessica Johnson produced an overwhelming dramatic effect and run on Kleenex.
Lidiya Yankovskya’s 21 well-chosen players situated in the extreme left of the crossing made a very fine simulation of a much larger band in a pit. Stylistically they were absolutely responsive to Puccini’s ripeness and unembarrassed to play juicily. The orchestral reduction by an un-named Bryan Higgins worked well in the space.
The space worked variously for the singers. From the roughly 20 ft. sq. platform, the voices came to this listener in the second row with fine projection and focus. But as soon as the singers moved upstage into the chancel, the sound was bafflingly unfocused. Bromberg’s mainly dim lighting in blues and ambers worked well to set up the dramatic finish with a brilliant follow spot. This show worked well without elaborate sets, because of the focus on individuals and the placement in a church.
Rather than following with more of Il Trittico (or what this listener would have enjoyed, the first act of Carmen, which would have allowed the nuns an amusing role reversal), the company supplied Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in a minimal mounting that added smaller raised platforms with more tables and chairs—and a rhythmic clacking typewriter. Bernstein penned his cautionary comic tale about consumerism, chasing the almighty buck, and the decline of marriage and family while on honeymoon in 1951. Coming just after On the Town, it had some of that show’s jazz inflections as well as anticipations of the the much more successful Candide and West Side Story.
The members of the seven-piece band called for in Bernard Yannotta’s uncredited reduction could really scat and swing. Each one a soloist and a star, their number encompassed flutist Orlando Cela, clarinetist Emmanuel Toledo, trumpeter Kyle Spraker, trombonist Roger Hecht, percussionist Rob McCarth, pianist Brendon Shapiro, and double bass Nathan Varga. In a complete turnabout of style after Puccini, Yankovskya led a perky and jazzy almost pointillist take that gave both the composer and the singers full shrift.
The church’s reredos became a major visual element in the production as a screen for a continuous slide show of Mad Men era magazine ads as well as Elyse Mendelson’s very much needed supertitles. What a pity that this central visual element was projected with so much geometric distortion and inadequate size. Projectors have lens shift and anti-keystoning adjustments that could have mitigated the angled placement.
Tahiti’s seven short scenes were suggested by various combinations of stage furniture which did little either to impede or enhance the sounds and fury. Beginning with the jazzy trio of Heather Weirich, Cody Ingram and Tyler Wolowicz, it was clear that a modern Greek chorus would be on hand to underline and elucidate in lively manner with line dancing and hep-cat-cool.
Dinah and Sam stand in, let’s hope, for Bernstein’s warring parents; it would be too bad to imagine that he had himself and his brand new wife Felicia in mind when he wrote it. It’s also too bad that he served as his own librettist, since his quotidian American-speak was rather too light and stereotyped to carry the musical freight that he loaded upon the opera. Vernacular works better on Broadway. “What a Movie” is hardly a line to be associated with the depiction of existential angst, even though it supported the show’s most famous tune. Whether ironically invoking “Island Magic” in a cynical reference to the eponymous B-movie or intoning, “There love will teach us harmony and grace,” Bernstein’s lyric impulse always rose well above his utilitarian words.
Neither Dinah nor Sam was written to evoke much sympathy—both skipped their kid’s play—and both were stubborn narcissists. But their fencing and feigning were depicted in robust style by Heather Gallager and Joshua Miller. There were many effective scenes for both; the dream aria on her analysts’s couch, so 1950s, was Gallagher’s moment. Her placement on a well-elevated recamier allowed her to project attractive tone in support of enigmatic character. Joshua Miller’s Billy Bigelowesque (there I go again) take on Sam was dominating vocally and visually, and most virile in “There’s a law about men.” It didn’t hurt that he looked like Don Draper.
As the trio closes the show with more cynical/fantasy stanzas of “Island Magic,” the characters seem destined to find few satisfactions while we in the audience found many.
“Island Magic, where the midnight breezes caress us,
and the stars above
seem to bless us,
Everything now is cleared up and wonderful:
Everyone is happy as pie;”