Jack Heggie describes himself as a theater composer who is concerned with serving the drama and exploring character. His latest opera, If I Were You, as revealed in Boston University Opera Institute’s workshop production at the Booth Theater, looks solid for a place in the American music theater canon in the company of the best of Carlisle Floyd, Menotti and Sondheim … with nods to Puccini, Glass and maybe Andrew Lloyd Weber.
Libretti don’t always matter, but this one, set in a college milieu, with talk of semesters and dropouts, makes for a subject matter relevant to a younger cohort … great for selling opera to undergraduates … and they filled the flexible black box space. Librettist Gene Scheer adapted Julien Green’s Faustical novel Si j’étais vous
Essayist Robert Ziegler summarizes the novel thus:
[The Faust figure] Fabien is shown as a writer, but more importantly, he is a character in another writer’s fiction. As metatext, Green’s novel describes the conversion of an author into a succession of language objects which are similar and alien to him. In each of his different incarnations, Fabien transposes himself as text, marrying a residual consciousness of self to the desired attributes of his “host.” Fabien’s round-trip journey may, therefore, represent the process of turning the writer’s reality into language, and the subsequent endeavor to resituate what that language had displaced.
Much of the apparent complexity (I haven’t read it) of the adapted novel gets lost in the necessary and effective translation to the lyric stage. Scheer transformed Fabien into Fabian (Forte ?) “…gonna kiss 1000 chicks gonna get 1000 kicks, so turn me loose” and created a female diabolus Brittomara with whip and red cape, of course — think Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil Is a Woman” and Gwen Verdon (Lola, the devil’s agent) in “Damn Yankees.” Heggie even writes a brief mambo number which perhaps pays homage to the earlier musical.
The third major part is for Fabian’s love interest Diana, “an exuberant 24-year-old woman.” She first appears in a juvenile yellow dress hardly suitable for a huntress or heroine. Would she be representing Gretchen, Marguerite, or some Faustina? She has to endure attempted seductions from the many characters Fabian inhabits after his diabolical bargain. She resists. She does not give birth to a child who dies in a snowstorm, nor does she burn at the stake. Yet much of the story is told through her reactions, and she has the most stage time of any singer.
The seven other characters, eventually appearing in a larger chorus of Revenants and “townspeople,” variously represent themselves or as shape-shifted versions of Fabian, or function merely act as bystanders or extras. When Fabian returns corporeally at the end to redeem his soul and die on behalf of the squirming zombies (no choreographer named), it begs the question of why God and the devil would bother to wager on the Goodness of Fabian, a total lightweight.
The production at the Booth, as in virtually all stage depictions of Mephisto, featured a trap for a descent to Hell, but this one functioned bidirectionally, facilitating a return trip to the surface. Designer Adam Hawkins’s very large, anthropomorphic apple tree dominated the thrust stage, blank aside from a few meandering tables and chairs. The dominating tree, hung with plexiglass souls, also served for stage-center entrances and exits. It did not move or dance as did its prototype in Disney’s Silly Symphony “Flowers and Trees.” Staging Director Jim Petosa identified the 12 scenes over two acts scenes mostly with title cards, else we would have had no notion whatsoever of our whereabouts: an ambulance, an auto shop, Putnam Publishing, a popular bar, Paul’s apartment, and Fabian’s apartment. The vernacular costumes were of little interest.
Unfailingly married to the words and emotions and generously and artfully orchestrated, Heggie’s work holds interest and never strains either patience or credulity (musically that is). And he certainly does have a distinctive manner of making his melodic figures memorable by artful repetition and development, as he makes use of leitmotifs; we know that if his Alleluias will glow with Randall Thompson warmth, his Sanskrit (or whatever) diabolical presto-changos will shock us every time they induce Fabian’s shape changing. His writing for singers has evolved from close association as an accompanist in standard rep and likewise his experience as a chamber musician humanizes his writing for orchestra.
If the libretto is a bit sophomoric, dwelling on bar encounters and apologies for conventional misunderstandings, the actual sung dialogue possessed a pleasing naturalness, especially as wrapped in the lyrical investment Heggie bestows. He’s kind to singers, but also demanding of his principals, especially when asking them to project across a large orchestra in an open pit. He also knew just when to create introspective arias and when to engage the cast in duets, trios and larger groupings.
William Lumpkin led the unbroken line of through-composed playing and singing with committed emphasis, never letting the forward motion flag, but never rushing the singers either. The 34 orchestra members from the Boston University School of Music, though belonging to no identified ensemble, collaborated as if they did.
The 11 singers on Saturday night in the dual-cast production showed vocal assurance and comfortable stage presence. Whether as a seductively diabolical dominatrix or a Brooklynese-spouting hairstylist, or in any of her many morphing personae, Gabrielle Barkidija made herself riveting on-stage and sang with damnable commitment and satisfying vocal chops. Kira Kaplan brought to the ingenue Diana a youthful mien and lovely tone which developed into deeper characterization and vocal power as the plot progressed. Fabian, Faust, no-so forte, is called upon to impersonate an “unlovable, self-doubting dreamer.” Hmm, that doesn’t sound like a very juicy role. And only at the end does the score call for a really dramatic outpouring. But when the moment came for Fabian’s self-sacrifice, Jangho Lee showed pluck.
Fabian’s alter egos or possessed bodies and souls presented much more interesting possibilities than Fabian himself; of course that’s why he chose to possess them. Jacob O’Shea as Paul, a lounge lizard and brute, had good luck with the ladies, in part because of his irresistibly dangerous Elvis manner. Vocally and visually he commanded in his intense encounters …including the accidental murder of his lover Rachel, the sexy, miniskirted mezzo Carli Mazich-Addice. Hyungjin Son gave resonant bass voice to boss Putnam, though he didn’t seem to change character after Fabian took charge of his body and soul. Taking on David, “a successful young photographer,” William Benoit channeled Tab Hunter blandness with plenty of charm.
As Diana rued her lot as frustrated huntress for the lost soul of her true love Fabian, Selena “her closest friend since childhood,” appeared to comfort the enmity. Sarah Rogers, proved equal to the personifying the comforter. Her warm soprano blended perfectly with Kaplan’s in their love duet with a kiss towards the end of the second act.
We welcome the return of the BU Opera Institute to the boards and very much look forward to its Cosi fan Tutte at the Tsai Performance Center in April.
See images of alternate cast HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
If I Were You
Music by Jack Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Joan and Edgar Booth Theater
William Lumpkin, Conductor
Jim Petosa, Director
Adam Hawkins, Scenic Designer
Andrew Wehling, Costume Designer
Max Wallace, Lighting Designer
Angela Dogani, Production Stage Manager
Annie Kao, Production Manager
Allison Voth, Principal Coach, Chorus Master
Matthew Larson, Coach
Fernando Gaggini, Assistant Conductor
Angela Gooch, Repetiteur
Ryan Winkles, Fight Choreography
Oshin Gregorian, Managing Director
CAST OF CHARACTERS
BRITTOMARA: *Gabrielle Barkidjija, +Alexis Peart
DIANA: *Kira Kaplan, +Addison Pattillo
FABIAN: *Jangho Lee, +Ryan Lustgarten
SELENA: *Sarah Rogers, +Danielle Pribyl
PUTNAM: Hyungjin SonPAUL: *Jacob O’Shea, +Yunus Akbas
DAVID: *William Benoit, +Marcus Huber
RACHEL: *Carli Mazich-Addice, +Lena Costello
JONATHAN: *Anthony Pilcher, +Ryan Mewhorter
TWO WOMEN……..Allison Holloway, Margaret Matejcek
*Denotes Thursday/Saturday Performances+Denotes Friday/Sunday Performances