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Water stories

You can see the logic of it: The Juilliard School wants to show off its opera program, the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, which is (on the evidence) brim-full of talent. There are boys in it and there are girls in it, so a likely double bill consists Benjamin Britten’s “church parable,” Curlew River, written for an all-male cast, and after intermission, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, another one-act, nearly all of it female keening and bewailing. Deaths by or beside water give the evening a certain unity; the basic staging focused on graveyards and crosses.  

The Willson Theater on the third floor of the school is a square the size of a large classroom. There is no stage and no orchestra pit; opera is very close to the audience, who line the walls. This enhances creativity—I saw a fine production of Gluck’s Armide there, years ago. For Curlew River, Alexis Distler’s set was two wheeled platforms of unfinished wood doing service as a ferryman’s boat and a tomb, opening up to beds of gray gravel.

A startling “rain” of gravel was a door between the worlds to see a ghost through. In Riders to the Sea, one platform became the house for luckless Irish fisher-folk; the other a graveyard. Sydney Maresca’s costumes were gray or white or earth-toned, with much woollen knitwear—peasant chic.

John Giampietro’s production made use of simple gesture effectively elided with the way music stretches lines of speech. He kept the chorus present but low, on the ground, out of distraction’s way, yet participating, constantly attentive so that we felt they spoke for us, that they observed as solemnly as we did the two bitter parables.

Mark Shapiro led the small orchestra, spread out around the room, and played the piano for Riders to the Sea.

Curlew River’s dissonant braid of Chinese Japanese classic, Christian mystery and modern declamatory idiom of speech-song was especially well-served, its deceptively naturalistic ritual touching, archaic and modern at once. Vaughan Williams’s far less moving piece was a let-down.

Part of the problem may be that the libretto is a play by Synge, its language lilting Irish-English. The student singers did not make the syllables fall in the proper jaunty corner of the mouth; the idiom seamed affected, off-putting, with flat American vowels.

Curlew River is set in a generic mythical landscape, somewhere in China Japan but mostly in the world of holy mystery. Particular accents are not required; only exquisite diction, on the evidence a major concern of the Juilliard program. (There were no “titles,” and every word was clear.)

Too, in Riders, Vaughan Williams’s rather tuneless sprechstimme does not give rise to music to wash over the story until its inevitable conclusion. The orchestra for Curlew River was attractively cut down and spread about the room, one singer pushing (and beating) a gong, the flautist entering the “play” to taunt the Madwoman with fluted cries of her lost child and the taunting curlews over the river.

The singers were all of them gifted, attractive and eager to seize the stage. Tenor Kyle Bielfeld expressed his inner Madwoman with dignity, revealing the aristocratic and tragic figure who arouses respect among her rough fellow travelers. Tobias Greenhalgh portrayed and sang the Ferryman with sturdy authority, sometimes while poling a raft full of singers.

Emmett O’Hanlon sang the Traveller who leads us into the story in a way to prepare us for a proper legend. Ying Fang sang the Boy’s Spirit with a soprano of bell-like purity—Britten wanted a boy soprano, but Fang’s Mozartean instrument was a sublime substitute.

Riders to the Sea was probably chosen by the company as a setting for Lacey Jo Benter’s deep, resonant contralto, as the bitter, too-much-bereaved Maurya. This it did, though without overwhelming the contributions of Simone Easthope and Laura Mixter as her daughters or Emmett O’Hanlon’s brief lines as the last of her six drowned sons.

Her final threnody and the women’s chorus that breathe with it are the only reasons to hear the opera, but they did not pack anything like the punch of Britten’s mystery.

183 comments

  • Clita del Toro says:

    Oh, I forgot about Barton at the Tucker Gala. She was fabulous. Not only was her hair bad, the gown was pretty yucky as well. As the saying goes, she needs some gay friends.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      Not that Monastryska’s hair was okay. Girls, get a good hairdresser!

    • MontyNostry says:

      No, not a good look with the horizontal neckline and horizontal waistline making her look very, er, horizontal. Monastyrska’s dress wasn’t bad for a fuller-figured gal, but I reckon her Macbeth had probably disappeared down her cleavage. Sorry, but even though the voice is magnificent in certain respects, I still find her uninspiring: it’s primarily that breathiness (which I noticed immediately when I heard her Aida in London) and the fact (as someone asutely pointed out on here) that she has only two vowel sounds.
      By the way, Borodina’s voice might have declined a little (though it is still sumptuous), but her temperament seems to have heated up. Maybe she was directing Dalila’s aria an an errant Ildar (very elegant tux, but a dodgy stand-up collar).

    • Camille says:

      I hope she does, and soon too, as she is really a talent to watch. Same went for her appearance at Beatrice di Tenda. It will hold her back from leading parts if she doesn’t do something, I am very sorry to say, but that’s the way the world works.

      And kudos to Angela Meade for the great strides she has made in improving her image. She has put in a lot of work and it shows.

      I don’t know about the glitter eyeshadow, though, but I liked it.

    • Camille says:

      Bye-bye Clitissima!! I am leaving right now to see your Amber and will be back later with the report!

      If she isn’t good you owe me a Cosmo!

      mucho amor,
      Cammiesteste

  • Maury D says:

    If you guys are feeling all palsy-walsy with Monstyrska and want to call her by a pet name, Lyuda is the diminutive of Lyudmila. Lyudy means “people” in Russian.

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    Rehearing now the Attila duet with Quinn and Ildar — Quinn is so much more fabulous than most barytones out there!!!!!

    • MontyNostry says:

      My only major reservation is that he doesn’t go into overdrive for the big moments. I like his dignity and relative sangfroid as a performer, but, interpretatively, he didn’t quite nail the clinching phrase about l’universo and Roma each time it came round -- and Verdi needs singers who can make those key moments cause your heart to stop.