Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sentimenal Journey

With each season, more and more opera companies have begun to include traditional Broadway musicals in their repertoire. The justifications for doing so are many. Musicals can provide further employment for members of the chorus and orchestra, add spice to the season's repertoire, pump up box office and subscription sales and appeal to the broader tastes of regional audiences while helping preserve a valuable segment of America's contribution to the literature of music theatre.

What may once have seemed like dabbling in works from the Great White Way has now turned into a noticeable trend. Among the popular musicals being produced this year on operatic stages throughout the North America are Jerome Kern's Show Boat, Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, Bock & Harnick's She Loves Me, Dale Wasserman's Man of La Mancha, Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady. Multiple hits come from Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George), George Gershwin (Girl Crazy, Porgy & Bess) and, of course, Rodgers & Hammerstein (Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and Carousel).

Carousel scores top honors for popularity, with performances scheduled this season in Chicago, Houston, Cleveland, Omaha, Portland, Syracuse, and Madison, Wisconsin. While the show holds a special place in the hearts of those who love lyric theatre, Carousel requires lead performers with exceptionally strong voices and dramatic skills. As a result, whether this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is being produced by an opera company or for commercial theatre (where lead artists may be asked to perform eight times a week), Carousel can be a bitch of a show to cast.

In June, I had a rare opportunity to experience performances of Carousel mounted by two different opera companies. Using sets borrowed from the Greater Miami Opera Association, Chicago Opera Theater's Carousel marked the theatrical conducting debut of John McGlinn (considered by many to be the foremost expert in the restoration of American musical comedies). With John De Main (who has conducted countless operas and musical comedies) on the podium, the Houston Grand Opera unveiled a new production of Carousel as part of a consortium effort with the Cleveland Opera, Portland Opera, Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Dallas Opera, Florentine Opera of Milwaukee and Tulsa Opera. While the performance I saw in Chicago was very, very good, the one I attended in Houston was great. Here's why:

Carousel is a mammoth and extremely difficult work to produce. In its more lyrical moments, Richard Rodgers' through-composed score demands the same kind of support from a conductor as any Wagnerian opera. Where McGlinn allowed tempos to stretch, De Main (who may be less of a scholar and more of a theatrical practitioner) was able to keep things moving, imbuing Houston's production with a taut lyricism and forward thrust that continually evaded Chicago Opera Theater's effort. While COT looked to Nancy Teinowitz to choreograph dances which would fit onto the Shubert Theatre's medium-sized stage, HGO hired Gemze de Lappe to recreate Agnes de Mille's superb choreography. The sets and lighting designed by Michael Yeargan and Patricia Collins for HGO's new production evoked a much greater sense of lyricism than Robert O'Hearn's sets and Michael Philippi's lighting did for the Chicago production (particularly in the Carousel Waltz and Louise's fantasy ballet).

Casting in Houston was also much stronger. However, by no means did the strengths of the Houston production invalidate those of Chicago Opera Theater's. Each was an honest attempt to stage Carousel with a tremendous amount of theatrical integrity. Aided by strong ensemble efforts, each performance tugged at the audience's collective heartstrings and managed to bring genuine tears to this critic's eyes.

The fact that some members of the audience were shocked by the casualness with which wife-beating is treated in Oscar Hammerstein's libretto should not be misconstrued as a sign that Carousel has aged poorly. If anything, it indicates that continued consciousness-raising about the treatment of women in our society has helped American audiences to become more enlightened.

Under Alan Stone's direction, the Chicago cast was headed by baritone Louis Otey (who created a strong and macho Billy Bigelow) and his offstage wife, Gloria Capone (whose facial features brought a definite peculiarity to Julie Jordan). Strong contributions came from Maureen Brennan's rambunctious Carrie Pipperidge, Joey Gyondla's appealingly priggish Enoch Snow, Deanna Dunagan's Mrs. Mullin and Ilya Parenteau's Louise. Mezzo-soprano Gweneth Bean (who turned Nettie Fowler into some sort of clam-eating earth mother) delivered the most robust and rotund version of "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" ever witnessed in the theater. What great fun!

Like a souffle whose ingredients have been mixed with slightly different measurements and a great deal more compassion by director Gerald Gutierrez, HGO's staging achieved more of a unified whole. Mimi Lerner's sympathetic portrayal of Nettie Fowler did not up-end the show like Gweneth Bean's did, and Susannah Israel's Louise displayed a more genuine sense of teen-aged desperation. Christopher Hux's Enoch Snow revealed a pleasant tenor voice while Ann Brown's Carrie Pipperidge complemented but never detracted from the shy and winsome appeal of Jayne West's radiantly beautiful and handsomely sung Julie Jordan.

The most fascinating performance by far came from Jeff Mattsey, a blustering Billy Bigelow whose baby fat matched the little boy still trapped inside him. Not only was this young baritone able to handle the vocal demands of the role with much greater ease and strength than his counterpart in Chicago, Mattsey's stage presence and interpretation evoked much more sympathy from HGO's audience, which could see that Billy was little more than an overgrown child of the streets struggling to grow up and become a man.

Mattsey's performance lent a physical and vocal credence to Billy Bigeloow which few artists have ever achieved in this role. Add a superb ensemble effort onstage and John De Main's exquisite work in the pit to the mix and you'll understand why I left the Wortham Center wishing I could go right back inside to experience Carousel all over again. It was quite wonderful.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 23, 1990.

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