It’s amazing how Leon Botstein and Bard College’s SummerScape series keep coming up with “overlooked masterpieces” from the operatic repertoire. At least that’s what the scholarly support materials tell us they are. The reality of what’s heard and seen on stage is often another matter.
This year’s entry is “Die Liebe der Danae.” Richard Strauss’ second to last opera, it was completed in 1940 but only premiered in 1952, three years after the composer’s death. The piece’s New York staged debut opened on Friday night and was seen on Sunday afternoon at the Fisher Center.
Besides declaring its greatness, the notes from conductor Botstein and stage director Kevin Newbury point to the opera’s appropriateness for our times. It’s about the worship and necessity of money, the primacy of status, and the fickleness of love. Yet the fact that the source material is Greek myth says we’re hardly the first generation to be obsessed with such matters.
In past years, Bard’s productions have been so lavish with stagecraft as to balance out the middling quality of the work at hand. But “Danae” received a modest, if occasionally clever treatment, at least by past standards. A spray of long tinsel is lowered to form a golden (moneyed) halo, but like an ATM card it gets used a few too many times. After intermission, Danae and Midas are living out of a beat-up blue compact car. Otherwise, the sets are rather static projections of Manhattan buildings or a desert horizon.
The most arresting scene visually and musically was the opening. As the orchestra plays a tight rhythmic counterpoint reminiscent of Kurt Weill, a couple dozen Wall Streets in navy suits and power ties are scurrying about, singing of unpaid bills. Later they opened their briefcases to the heavens, like open mouthed fledglings waiting to be fed.
The second scene is an attractive pairing of sopranos Megan Miller as Danae and Sarah Jane McMahon as Xanthe that brought to mind “Der Rosenkavalier.” Miller’s best moments come late in the opera when the textures thin and the pace relaxes.
Almost all of the vocal writing is darned tough, with long, not terribly gracious lines set high in the register. Combine this with the constantly unfolding themes and cadences in the orchestra and the effect is unrelenting. Given their tasks, Miller and the other leads, tenor Roger Honeywell as Midas and bass Carsten Wittmoser as Jupiter, did more than admirable work. But the playing of the American Symphony Orchestra under Botstein was more workmanlike than usual.
R. Strauss’ “Die Liebe der Danae”
3 p.m. Sunday, July 31, 2011
Fisher Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson
It’s hard to imagine that the Bard Music Festival will ever get around to a season titled “Noel Coward and His World.” So it’s probably enough that the college’s SummerScape series has mounted such a loving revival of the composer’s operetta “Bitter Sweet.” The show opened on Thursday night, was seen at the Friday matinee and runs through August 14 in the intimate smaller theater of the Fisher Center.
While his name evokes the early to mid-20th century, the dandy Coward lived until 1973 and was once a powerhouse composer, writer, performer and producer. These days, in the realm of classical music and opera at least, his work is a rarity. So again, “Bitter Sweet” was a welcome arrival.
But just to be clear, this is no forgotten masterpiece either. It’s probably debatable whether the category of operetta or musical comedy is a better fit. The numbers, often overflowing with clever inner rhymes, aren’t quiet as droll as most Gilbert and Sullivan nor as studied as some of Stephen Sondheim.
Though the music never exactly soars, there are plenty of good tunes including a one-time hit, “I’ll See You Again.” The small orchestra, conducted by James Bagwell, is sweetened up with lots of saxophones.
The story is a touching reflection on youthful love seen through the eyes of a matron, played with wistful grace by Sian Phillips. She’s surrounded by a cast that’s surprisingly large and pleasingly youthful and energetic.
Two of the leads certainly had an operatic confidence and power. Mezzo Sarah Miller’s performance as Sarah/Sari only grew richer as the show progressed. Tenor William Ferguson twice started songs without accompaniment yet was in fine tune when the orchestra joined in many bars later.
As a German chanteuse, soprano Amanda Quittieri had several fine production numbers though her finale was a garbled mix of languages. The best showmanship came from the male quartet of droll waiters. They climaxed in the suggestive and frolicsome “Green Carnation,” Coward’s only slightly veiled reference to Oscar Wilde.
The plot jumps about between decades and across national borders. Adrian W. Jones’ single set was elegant and efficient but it was the lavish costumes by Gregory Gale that best evoked each time and place. A constant presence on stage was the grand piano and more than a few performers displayed fluent keyboard skills.
Noel Coward’s “Bitter Sweet”
3 p.m. Friday, August 5, 2011
Fisher Center, Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson, NY
Originally appeared in the Times Union.
Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy Bard College
Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation…
And as we are the reason
For the “Nineties” being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.