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November 2004

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Valley Light Opera's RUDDIGORE
PATIENCE at Glimmerglass Opera

IOLANTHE AT MITThe party we claim to belong to --

There was a lot to like about MITGASP's production of IOLANTHE, which I saw opening night. Both male and female choruses were vocally and dramatically strong, and beautifully costumed by Jenna Lourenco. Under the skillful and complex choreographic direction of Katherine Bryant, they were always a pleasure to watch. Even when standing still the Fairies were constantly fluttering, in striking contrast to the Peers' noble poses. The women's hair-dos were especially delightful--cascades of frizzled curls and braids. (Is this a trademark of stage director Brian Bermack?) The orchestra, conducted by music director Jimmy Jia, was spirited and accurate. Lyman Opie gave a fresh interpretation of the Lord Chancellor's lines and silences. I have never seen such a truly nightmarish Nightmare Song, and Lyman was equally excellent and alive throughout Iolanthe's recitative and solo, delivered movingly by Erisa Hines. Len Giambrone was superb as Lord Tolloller, with a perfectly regal presence and a ringing tenor voice. Tony Parkes contrasted well as Lord Mountararat with understated dignity. Celia, Leila, and Fleta, played by Deborah Sager, Noe Kamelamela, and Shawna Lee Adams were appropriately charming. What a lovely voice Noe has, when she's allowed to sing alto instead of tenor! David Meyer sang Private Willis's number mellifluously. And a good time was had by all, in the cast and in the audience.

Sigh. But there was also a long list of things about the production that were unnecessarily off-putting. I fear they were virtually all in the category of the stage director trying to be creative. I'll mention two things first that were not in this category: Vanessa Quinlivan as the Fairy Queen was just too lightweight for the part, physically, dramatically, and vocally. And Liz Zhang as Phyllis, while beautiful and with a sweet voice, strayed in her pitch and did not present any sense of the character. Well, she’s young, and that’ll wear off. But now for the list ... The Fairies were made up with a bright dark mask around their eyes, making them look quite exotic. Fine, but then they could hardly be mistaken for ordinary women, as is necessary in the Act I finale, and when Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor meet at the end of Act II. (Iolanthe's "veil" was, oddly, a piece of netting put over her mouth.) The magnificence of March of the Peers was severely undercut by having Phyllis on stage and each of the Peers trying to get her attention. Lord Mountararat's equally magnificent song was almost totally covered up by chorus stage business--the Fairies going up to the Peers in twos and threes and starting to flirt with them, action which properly belongs in the next number, "In vain to us you plead". On the other hand, the Fairies repeatedly pleaded "Don't go" to Peers who in fact weren't going. The second verse of the Fairy Queen's song was gratuitously rewritten to eliminate the quaint reference to Captain Shaw: "O, passions raw! O, South Pacific Ocean!" Why not explain it in the program, instead? Strangely, Private Willis stood still during the musical interludes, and did all his marching while he was singing. Strephon, played by Rob Morrison, was portrayed as a clumsy oaf, perpetually smiling with his mouth wide open. And Strephon and Phyllis each had a bit in Act II where they cried, and then blew their noses into their hands--particularly distasteful in Phyllis's case as the two Lords came in a minute later and each took one of her hands and kissed it.

But behold, I have said enough. The performance was redeemed by its youthful enthusiasm and many fine points, serving as a reminder of why we prefer amateur to professional G&S productions. And we did enjoy it thoroughly.

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PATIENCE at Glimmerglass Opera

It is always a pleasure, but unfortunately a rarity, to hear a Gilbert and Sullivan production done by a cast of first rate operatic voices who treat the work with the respect it deserves. Fortunately this year Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, decided to include PATIENCE as one of the four productions in its festival season. Though operetta is very often included in their offerings, G&S had not been performed there since 1995 when they staged YEOMEN. Having seen and enjoyed four of their G&S productions over the years, I immediately sent for tickets when I saw that PATIENCE was on the schedule.

Lady Jane and her celloThe weekend turned out to be a most enjoyable one, as I was able to combine a Friday evening performance of PATIENCE with a Saturday matinee of a stunning production of Puccini’s LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. For those not familiar with Glimmerglass, the 900 seat Alice Busch Theater is a treat to behold, situated on the shores of Lake Oneonta about 6 miles north of Cooperstown which holds many attractions such as the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooper Museum and Farmers’ Museum. In good weather the grounds are ideal for a picnic dinner, and refreshments of all kinds are readily available. It is well worth the trip, but if you wish overnight accommodations it is advisable to make reservations well in advance, as the local hotels and motels fill up fast during the summer season. At ten and five minutes before each performance a brass ensemble comes onto the outside balcony to play a fanfare summoning the audience into the theater (a bit of a nod to the tradition at Bayreuth).

From the first notes of the overture conducted by Buffalo native Andrew Bisantz, it was immediately obvious that this would be no ordinary performance. The house was completely sold out, and yet you could have heard a pin drop during the softer passages. Very few of us are able to hire a large orchestra of expert players and give them the necessary rehearsal time to produce a nuanced meticulous performance, but this was the case here. My wife and I both agreed we had never heard it played so well. This was to be the case throughout the opera; all singing, playing and diction being absolutely first rate. Sir Arthur would definitely have loved it, you never got the impression that his music was playing “second fiddle” to anything – but then again I think Gilbert would have been pleased as well with how well his words were projected.

The set by Donald Eastman consisted of a simple, but effective, representation of the exterior of an English country manor house that could be rotated to reveal an interior setting or completely rolled off the stage when necessary. There was often a bit of humor in how these permutations would occur. The male chorus made much of rotating it on their entrance “Soldiers of the Queen”, which only set up an even funnier sequence of Lady Jane turning it all on her own in her second act scene with Bunthorne upon the dialogue line “No, not pretty… massive!” The original costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh were also extremely well done and added a visual delight to the production.

Director Tazewell Thompson admitted in an interview in the program that he wished to set a different style than one that is often associated with G&S productions (“an overblown, curious, artificially amplified way of dealing with behavior”) and try for a more sincere down to earth approach. He admitted that some audience members might find this disappointing at times, and indeed I think in some cases he was right, but it did offer a fresh and interesting approach. If anything most of us regulars would probably think that the production was a little bit under-choreographed, especially in some of the well known second act numbers such as “So Go to Him, and Say to Him” and the quintet “If Saphir I Choose to Marry”. (It was interesting in the latter number that they made a lyric change to make “…heartfelt sympathy” be pronounced in its usual way, rhyming it with “I will single be”.) I don’t think that this was done because the cast couldn’t do something more complicated, as was readily proven by Bunthorne (Jeffrey Lentz) and Archibald (Kevin Burdette) in their lively version of “When I Go Out the Door”, which rated a complete encore. It was especially problematic though in the slower paced first act which tended at times to drag, especially during the scenes without the men’s chorus.

Soprano Sarah Coburn was as delightful to look at as she was to listen to in the part of Patience. However she was a bit more of a savvy, sophisticated Patience than is often portrayed, which had the effect of making the goings on of the lovesick maidens even a little odder than usual. Joyce Castle as Lady Jane was one of the real standouts of the show, a very believable character. Her opening aria of the second act was a highlight, especially in that she did much actual cello playing (slightly out of tune with the orchestra) which made it all the funnier when every now and then they would play without her. It is not often that I have seen this number get the loudest and most sustained applause of the whole show, but this was the case here.

Another eye-opening performance was by Jake Gardner as the Colonel. Unlike many of the “comic baritones” often associated with this part, he had a full operatic voice (proven in the not insignificant part of Ashby in the next day’s Puccini). He was able to rattle off the patter with the best of them but at the end of a phrase still had the breath control to hold a sustained note.

All in all it was a delightful experience. As is the case of so many Glimmerglass productions, I understand that PATIENCE is going to be sent down to the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center this season. I think it will prove a worthwhile trip for all Gilbert and Sullivan fans.

---- JOHN E. DRESLIN    

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Valley Light Opera's RUDDIGORE I had never been to a Valley Light Opera production. But I have a nephew at Hampshire College whom I was sure could use a break from dorm food, so on what turned out to be the first snowy weekend of the season, my husband and I drove out to Amherst to see the VLO production of RUDDIGORE.

We left plenty of time to get there, what with the snow and being in unfamiliar territory, so we arrived half an hour early at Amherst High School. As they say, the joint was jumping. Clearly, VLO has a dedicated following. The organization has been putting on G&S shows since 1975, and the lobby of the high school was filled with posters of shows going back a quarter of a century. Additional display cases highlighted aspects of the current production. One in particular explained how the set was based on the Victorian Toy Theatre concept. “What could make for a more appropriate staging of Gilbert’s delightful spoof of Victorian moral absolutes than a make-believe late Victorian parlor entertainment?” explained director Joseph Donohue.

And indeed, when the curtains opened, we saw a large toy theatre with cutout scenery and movable cardboard figures, that was mirrored in the set for the show, which had cutout type trees on the sides. The second act set was a giant replica of the toy theatre, which fascinated the two young girls who came out during the overture and oohed and aahed over it. The major characters in the play also came out and greeted the girls during the overture, did little dances with them, etc. I’m not sure how well that worked; I think I would have rather listened to Sullivan’s music, played very well under the orchestral direction of Juli Holmes, without visual distraction.Despard

The two girls showed up from time to time throughout the play, which I suppose was meant to show their fascination with the life-size non-cardboard players of the toy theatre, but their presence did not add much to my enjoyment of the production.

Having said that, I thought the show was delightful. There was quite a large chorus of bridesmaids, some of whom appeared to be Dame Hannah’s age. Nicholas Dahlman as Robin and Elaine Crane as Rose had beautiful voices and were very fine comic actors. I also enjoyed watching Emily Spura as Mad Margaret, and Lisa Woods as Hannah was spunky and defiant. Somewhat weaker was Jonathan Evans as Dick Dauntless, whose voice was not always up to the demands of the role - and who didn't dance a true hornpipe - but who did a good job in the first act madrigal.

My highest praise goes to director Donohue, whose concept was executed wonderfully by set designer Ken Samonds and lighting designer Steve Morgan. Donohue did a very good job at arranging tableaux of frozen expressions that ended scenes, such as the expressions of horror on the company as Despard approached. And I enjoyed watching Rose frantically look through her etiquette book when Robin becomes the Bad Baronet. Other notable touches included the lightning bolts in the sky when Despard appeared and around the sides of the auditorium during the transformation of portraits to ghostly ancestors. Not all of the ancestors were portraits: one was in a suit of armor and another was a sculptured bust on a pedestal. The production concluded with the "Having been a wicked Baronet" ending, which is of course my favorite.

I have to make mention of the program. I have never seen a program of this size. It was 17 inches long, folded to be tall and narrow, and included an eleven-paragraph synopsis of the play, with the first letter of each paragraph spelling out BASINGSTOKE.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening. I would definitely return to VLO and, if anyone is interested, I can recommend a wonderful B&B in the area!


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