Monday, August 18, 2003

Ash Lawn Opera Festival

I'm quite a fan of the Ash Lawn Opera Festival. This small venue usually stages two operas and a Broadway musical every summer, all on the grounds of James Monroe's plantation home just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Because of the small space, improvised venue and limited seating, every person in the audience receives a very intimate opera-going experience. And, to my own relief, everything is sung in English. (It is standard procedure in most of the world to sing opera in the audience's native tongue; in Vienna, Puccini's Turandot is sung in German, not Italian, while in Rome, Wagner is sung in Italian, if at all. The major exception I know of is America, where traditionally opera has been an elite activity, and incomprehensibility simply adds to the odd, high-class mystique.)

The staging at Ash Lawn is pretty much what one would expect from a makeshift outdoor venue. Lighting effects lack sophistication, but considering the location, it's a minor miracle that there are any lights at all. Sets are simple, usually on the level of a typical community theater. Choreography is nonexistent; spectacle is kept to the bare minimum. But you don't go to Ash Lawn Opera for the trappings; you go for the talent. The orchestra is small but lively, and the opera singers (most of them fresh-faced up-and-comers) are unmiked. If you want to hear opera live, casual and in the rough, this is one of the best places in the country to do it.

I have to note that this year's season at Ash Lawn was a disappointment. Previous seasons have had at least some ambition, with works that challenged the young company and introduced audiences to works slightly off the beaten track. Two years ago, Ash Lawn offered the East Coast premiere of Mark Adamo's chamber opera Little Women (based loosely on the Louisa May Alcott novel), which has since played across the country to popular and critical acclaim. Last year, it staged one of Rossini's lesser operas, La Cenerentola, along with a genuinely good La Traviata. This year, the fare was meager, with two productions instead of the usual three. What's more, these productions -- Mozart's Magic Flute and Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific -- were timid affairs, calculated to please an audience of senior citizens and young families.

I've seen Mozart's Magic Flute before; in fact, I did some minor tech work on a university production when I was an undergraduate. (My primary jobs were to open and close a door for the Queen of the Night, and bring a potted plant on the set for Act II.) The opera has two major advantages: First, its wholesome, fairy-tale setting makes it popular with parents and children. Second, the opera can be staged for practically nothing -- and usually is.

Problem is, the original German libretto is terrible (featuring long, dead stretches without plot or action), and the standard English translation doesn't improve on it. At Ash Lawn, director Nick Olcott tries to divert our attention from this rather obvious shortcoming by playing the opera for low comedy, always placing funny business in the background for fidgety kiddies and bored grown-ups. Alas, much of the music doesn't support such a light-hearted (or -headed) interpretation. However silly the opera's plot may seem to us today, it's pretty clear that Mozart and his librettist took it very seriously.

It's clear the performers take this material seriously, too. Vocal performances are solid: Ryan Ralph contributes a clear tenor and subtle comic timing to the demanding role of Prince Tamino. Mark Riley mugs shamelessly, stealing scene after scene as Papageno. Colleen McGrath, as the evil Queen of the Night, has the two most impressive and technically difficult arias in the opera; she performs them as well as anyone I've heard, if not quite flawlessly. Margaret Lloyd fares well as Pamina, with a very nice soprano voice; Mark Risinger's Sarastro has a commanding bass-baritone, if not quite the physical presence for the role. The sole weak spot in the cast was William Martin as Monostatos; I get the sense that neither Martin nor director Olcott could get a grip on his character, and Martin's voice, though fine in chorus work, seemed inadequate for his Act II aria.

Despite my criticisms, I can say that Ash Lawn's production of Magic Flute works well enough, if taken on its own modest terms. Still, I wish the director's ambitions had not been confined to getting the cast and the audience through the show in one piece. Some imagination in the staging would have made this Magic Flute far more -- well, magical.

Yet Ash Lawn's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific was far, far worse. Time has not been kind to the show. In 1949 it may have been considered an enchanted evening indeed, but today it seems perfectly humdrum. What's more, the incessant preachiness in Act II makes this show the most dated and offensive of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein efforts -- and considering this includes Flower Drum Song, that's saying quite a lot. (If I were a Pacific Islander, I think I'd have walked out during the second verse of "Happy Talk," probably the most racist song ever written in the cause of harmony and understanding.)

Unfortunate casting doesn't help matters, either. As Ensign Nellie Forbush, Cherry Duke does her best to channel Mary Martin, but she simply doesn't have the Broadway belt the part demands. As Lt. Joseph Cable, Robert M. Boldin is cursed with a beautiful, affable Irish tenor that generates neither sexual tension nor moral outrage, both of which are vital to the character. Sonja Mihelcic, as Bloody Mary, is most obviously miscast; an obvious black wig fails to cover her natural hair (though she very seldom wears that wig), and her "yellowface" makeup leaves her looking badly sunburned. The chorus of nurses included some very large women ("Those aren't WAVEs, they're tsunamis" one wag remarked). Add long-haired soldiers performing lackluster choreography of the "stomp-your-left-foot" variety, and you can see that Ash Lawn really wasn't prepared to mount this production.

The sole bright spot in the large cast is Wojciech Bukalski. As Emil de Becque, he contributes the opera-singer moxie the show desperately needs. His baritone takes command, slicing through the orchestra as if it were butter; when he sings, the production rises miraculously above its community-theater aura, and takes on a life of its own. Indeed, I can safely say I would rather have heard Bukalski deliver a short recital of showtunes, than seen this incredibly lackluster production. Although this show will not be remembered as one of his finer moments, I suspect you'll hear much more from him in the future.

I can't say that I regret having seen Ash Lawn's musical season this year. Ash Lawn is a delightful venue, and I enjoy hearing a live orchestra in performance; besides, I suspected I would need to keep my expectations lower than normal. But although I don't regret having gone to see this year's festival, I do regret that the festival was as thoroughly mediocre as it was. That said, it drew large crowds; each production I saw played to a sold-out house. For South Pacific the festival even added extra seating -- and used it.

Here's hoping Ash Lawn can build on this year's financial windfall, and produce more interesting fare next year.

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