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This review by Alan Mallach was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
July 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Opera Review: `Six Characters’
Accustomed to the operas of the standard repertoire,
it may take an effort to enter into the special world of Hugo
magnificent yet rarely-heard "Six Characters in Search of an
but the journey is well worth the effort. In the Opera Festival of
New Jersey’s new production, "Six Characters" is revealed
as a work of power, passion, and beauty, a work that is musically
and dramatically rewarding for all its sometimes harsh modernist
The opera opens on an empty rehearsal stage, set with a few chairs,
bits of scenery, and a ladder, all bathed in a mysterious blue-green
light. As an opera company assembles to rehearse a new work entitled
"The Temptation of St. Anthony" under the Director’s guidance,
six characters mysteriously appear on his stage. Known only as the
Father, the Mother, the Son, the Stepdaughter, the Boy, and the Girl,
they demand that the Director allow them to present their story, a
story their composer has left unfinished.
As their story emerges, the Real People, the members of a professional
company, are drawn into the Characters’ world of passion and despair.
At the end, though, the Characters disappear as suddenly as they had
appeared, and the Real People are left wondering whether they had
ever been there at all.
Working with a lively libretto by Denis Johnston that freely adapts
Pirandello’s famous play, while remaining true to its spirit, Weisgall
brought a sophisticated, complex musical style to the work. Very much
in the modernist mainstream of the 1950s, Weisgall’s musical language
owes much to the Berg of "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," to
Stravinsky, and to American modernist pioneers such as Roger Sessions.
It avoids the serialism that was seeping into American music at the
Although unconventional by the standards of 19th-century
opera, Weisgall’s music is imbued with a dramatic power very much
in the grand operatic tradition. Weisgall is a true opera composer
who knows that the human voice is the heart of the operatic
and who pushes the limits of his self-imposed modernism in his effort
to make his music sing — most effectively in the second and third
acts. His very success, ironically, exposes the limitations of the
modernist musical vocabulary as a vehicle for composing opera today,
although the alternatives, except in the hands of a rare genius like
Benjamin Britten, are also problematic.
Opera Festival’s production does justice to this complex yet rewarding
work. An outstanding cast sings Weisgall’s music with conviction,
passion, and, where called for, a good measure of humor.
Michaela Gurevich is outstanding in the role of the Stepdaughter.
With a powerful and beautifully controlled voice that is particularly
rich and velvety in her middle register, she is equally at home in
the hushed, private world of her first act aria, "a quiet
the anguish and passion of her second act scene with her stepfather,
and the dramatic climax of the opera. Robert Orth is her equal. He
brings to the role of the Father, a helpless or hurtful figure
on your point of view), vividly to life, and delivers his key third
act scene with blazing intensity. If his sexual encounter with the
Stepdaughter is the dramatic heart of the opera, that scene,
"So do not speak lightly of our only world," is the opera’s
Rosalind Elias, although at 71 no longer the singer she once was,
is a strong presence as the Mother in mourning, while Neal Harrelson,
as the Director, goes beyond his character’s affectations and poses
to allow us to see the troubled man beneath. His set pieces,
the Act II aria, "Male and female created he them," were
sung, although not without occasional strain.
The many smaller roles were all capably sung. Among those, some of
the most notable included Alicia Berneche, as the Coloratura, who
showed an impressive vocal range and a comedic flair; Aimee Willis
as the charming Prompter, who made the most of her third act scene
with the Father; and Dominic Inferrera, who was a strong, somewhat
Leading the orchestra, conductor Barbara Day Turner shaped the opera
beautifully, effectively maintaining control of Weisgall’s complex
interweaving of orchestra, chorus and soloists.
Albert Takazauckas, the opera’s director, had a particularly difficult
task. "Six Characters" is a strange mixture of low comedy
and melodramatic tragedy, in which the extravagant and painful
of the Characters contrasts sharply with the frivolity of the Real
People, who are caricatures of stock opera figures, such the Tenor
Buffo and the German Soprano, rather than individualized characters.
Farce and pathos bump up against one another, often in an abrupt
If there is a particular weakness in the libretto, it is that much
of the humor, and much of the characterization of the Real People,
is thoroughly a product of the ’50s, and therefore dated. This issue
is addressed by the dated ’50s costumes and props that define the
setting. Takazauckas, with the help of such strong singing
as Orth and Gurevitch, does an outstanding job of maintaining the
balance between the light and dark sides of the work, but could
have done more to cushion some of the unavoidable collisions.
It was disappointing to see many empty seats at McCarter, although
this may reflect a Wednesday night lull rather than a lack of interest
in this work. I, for one, am thoroughly grateful to Opera Festival
for making it possible for me finally to see this work, and I
hope that many others will take similar advantage of the opportunity.
"Six Characters" is by no means an opera just for scholars
or modern music buffs; it is a provocative and original opera for
every music lover eager to explore the riches of the operatic world
beyond the standard repertoire.
— Alan Mallach
of New Jersey , McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787.
Final performance of Hugo Weisgall’s work. $22 to $82. Saturday,
July 22, 8 p.m.
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