Festival Focus – Opera Saratoga, US
6 August 2012, Saratoga Springs, US
Alexander Orthwein steps up to bat as The Mighty Casey
Joshua Kohl holding court as the Duke of Mantua in 'Rigoletto'(Photos courtesy of Opera Saratoga)
Report by Karyl Charna Lynn
Opera Saratoga has been known as Lake George Opera for the past half a century, but recently changed its name to reflect the company’s relocation to Saratoga Springs, where it has been based since 1998. Alongside this rebranding, the company acquired a new staff, board, and a third opera in its schedule, having been forced by financial constraints to cut its offering to two over the past few seasons. Curtis Tucker, once again at the helm, metamorphosed the company into a 10-day festival format, with overarching themes, obscure works and director-driven-concept productions.
This season’s theme was versatility. Tucker wanted to show the company’s three performance categories:19th century masterpieces, with Rigoletto; comic works, with a double bill of Offenbach’s obscure Le 66 and the one act satire on Britain’s legal system by Gilbert & Sullivan, Trial by Jury; and rarely performed contemporary American classics, with Schuman’s 1953 opera The Mighty Casey, which deals with America’s favorite pastime – baseball.
Mighty Casey was also the festival’s highlight. Based on Lawrence Thayer’s 1888-poem 'Casey at the Bat', it is a portrait of small-town America (Mudville) in 1917: an entertaining work with a serious undertone dealing with the downfall of Mudville’s hero Casey, who when his moment of greatness fades (he loses the championship game by striking out) finds redemption through love. The opera was musically stimulating and visually exciting. Only director Helene Binder’s insertion of a mini-vaudeville show (1917 was the heyday of vaudeville) at the start of Act II almost ruined the work by interrupting the action, breaking the story’s thread and detracting from Schuman’s glorious music. Set against a backdrop of the team’s hometown Main Street and its ball park, complete with dugout and stands, the opera was narrated by The Watchman (Mark Womack in a matter-of-fact manner), which included Thayer’s entire poem, of which the last stanzas were set to a funereal chromatic chorale, sung by the spectators/townspeople at the game.
The music, slightly dissonant, sounded like a fusion of Copland and Bernstein. It was rhythmical with heavy brass and percussion, and reflected the mood and emotions of the story, by turns lively and melodic, peaceful and neo-romantic, and mournful. The orchestra played a major role in driving the work, because there were long stretches with no singing or spoken dialogue. The music, building in parallel triads, ended where it began, so there were no climatic moments à la Verdi, but it was engrossing nevertheless. A range of character motifs clearly delineated the different characters, but caused the dialogue to suffer through the frequent repetition of phrases, harking back to Baroque era traditions.
Ironically, Alexander Orthwein in the title role (Casey) neither sang nor spoke, but did a great pantomime of Mudville’s last hope for a championship. The singing cast, a mixture of apprentice and studio artists, assayed their roles with aplomb. Tucker admirably conducted from the ‘skypit’ (it is always on top of the set since the theatre has no orchestra pit) capturing the nuances and details of the music.
Director Chuck Hudson’s updated Rigoletto to contemporary Italy, although it could stand for any country where male politicians amuse themselves by paying for sex then denigrating and abusing the women. The Duke of Mantua, transformed into an egocentric, womanizing politician, was modelled after Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose alleged sexual orgies were legendary. The Duke’s court was metamorphosed into a bordello with explicit sexual acts and excessive violence against scantily-attired women. Although it took an act for Joshua Kohl to warm up, it was worth the wait. His voice, deliciously lyrical and emotionally nuanced, offered a beautiful timbre, if occasionally forced. Guido Lebron assayed Rigoletto with a powerful, booming voice that was blunt, a reflection of his character. Marie-Eva Munger was a standout, imbuing Gilda with a golden-hued sound, beautifully melodic, and finely nuanced with a touch of vibrato and thrilling high notes. Maestro Jim Caraher kept the performance tight.
The double bill of Le 66 (Number 66) and Trial by Jury were fluff pieces – light, silly and fun. Le 66 involved a young couple’s journey through the Alps, where they met a salesman, and explored the humorous consequences of holding a lottery ticket upside down. (‘Le 66’ refers to the number of the winning lottery ticket.)
The overarching theme for next year’s Opera Saratoga festival season will be operas inspired by Shakespeare.