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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’

E-mail: AlanMallach@princetoninfo.com

Accustomed to the operas of the standard repertoire,

it may take an effort to enter into the special world of Hugo

Weisgall’s

magnificent yet rarely-heard "Six Characters in Search of an

Author,"

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

language.

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

time.

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

experience,

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

room,"

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

(depending

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,

beginning,

"So do not speak lightly of our only world," is the opera’s

moral center.

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,

particularly

the Act II aria, "Male and female created he them," were

beautifully

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

stolid, Son.

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

passions

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

fashion.

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

actors

as Orth and Gurevitch, does an outstanding job of maintaining the

balance between the light and dark sides of the work, but could

perhaps

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

certainly

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

Six Characters in Search of an Author, Opera Festival

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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