Friday, March 11, 2005

Patti Cake: Marc Blitzstein's Regina at the Kennedy Center

When one thinks of American art in the 1940s, a few things spring to mind: Jazz, cinema, Broadway musicals, the Theater, Aaron Copland and a few orchestral composers of that ilk. But opera? There was Gian Carlo Menotti (The Medium, The Consul), and ... not much else. Americans are about as well-known for opera as Jamaicans are for bobsledding -- maybe less well-known, since to my knowledge no one has ever made a movie about American opera.

Yet as part of its series "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts," the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has mounted a "staged concert version" of Marc Blitzstein's opera Regina. (I can't fathom why the Kennedy Center billed this performance as a "staged concert," since for all practical purposes this was a fully realized theatrical performance. The only concessions to the concert hall were an onstage orchestra and James Noone's beautifully dark, stylized set -- both of which proved ideal for the material.) The openly gay Blitzstein had two major successes in his career, both connected to the American Left. The first came in 1936 with The Cradle Will Rock, an agitprop musical that gained unexpected notoriety when government officials tried to shut it down. The second was his 1954 translation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Alas, his music is mostly ignored in favor of his leftist politics.

Regina, a 1949 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes is perhaps the most ambitious of Blitzstein's many flops. On a formal level, the opera may be his most explicitly dialectical work, exploiting tensions between opera and musical comedy. Of course, Blitzstein doesn't stop there: He also pits modernism against popular song, African-American culture against European-influenced White hegemony, gospel music against ragtime, and spiritual cooperation against capitalist greed.

Even Regina's fervent champions admit that its disparate elements rip it apart. Still, this noble failure has proven surprisingly influential, perhaps in part beauase Leonard Bernstein touted the work (and its composer) wherever he went. One can even detect a whiff of this magnum opus in Sondheim's avant-garde musicals, most notably Sunday in the Park with George and Passion -- shows which also explore the conflict between high modernism and popular music, and which also collapse (albeit less spectacularly) under the weight of their self-contradictions. Yet although Blitzstein's fellow composers have found him a worthy model, American audiences have never managed to embrace him. Reactions at the Broadway premiere of Regina ranged from mild puzzlement to intense dislike. The show would close after only 56 performances.

The Kennedy Center's staging of this oft-maligned opera made several cuts to the score, in order to keep the performance under three hours (barely). The most significant omission, as far as I could tell, was the jazz song "Naught's a Naught," from the Prologue. This noisy little rag establishes the opera's dialectical structure -- in this case, exposing tensions between sacred and profane African-American music, and setting up a larger conflict between spirituality and economics. I think it's an important key to the opera's aesthetic, and I really missed it. The Center also cut some necessary exposition from Act I, which made the opera's plot needlessly difficult to follow.

All the same, Regina retains its power to shock and alienate audiences. At intermission, I overheard one complaint that "there's something about this I just don't get," which is about as close as a well-mannered concertgoer will come to "I don't like it." Other conversations focused on the music, which violates expectations at nearly every turn. The most damning verdict seemed to come from audience members who left at intermission, never to return. Perhaps these people wanted something more tuneful and uplifting, along the lines of Carousel or Kiss Me Kate. And to be fair, the Kennedy Center offered no warning that Regina would be a far cry from the golden age of Broadway. They didn't even provide program notes.

They did, however, try to sweeten the deal with a bit of stunt casting, bringing Patti LuPone from New York to sing the title role. The Broadway legend receives top billing in this production, even though she's known for lighter musical fare like Evita and Les Miz. Her last musical-comedy role (on Broadway, anyway) was as the lovable Reno Sweeney in the late-'80s revival of Anything Goes, which is about as far from Blitzstein's opera as one could possibly imagine. As for her voice, I must confess I'm not a fan: It is often referred to as "Merman-esque," which in this case could mean that it sounds like a relic from the briny deep. Still, her performance wasn't quite the disaster I expected, though with her helmet-like wig and turn-of-the-century couture, she did bear a sad resemblance to Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!

LuPone had her moments, and she had some style. The role of Regina Giddens fit her surprisingly well: Blitzstein wrote the role for an aging mezzo-soprano, preferably one with rust in her pipes, who can handle angular arias and deliver full-throttle harangues. But most opera fans would agree that this Broadway baby was sadly out of her element -- and depth -- among legitimate opera singers and a full orchestra. She lacks the training and the stamina to project her voice above an orchestra, and she fails to articulate consonants. The Kennedy Center attempted to compensate for their diva's deficiencies by miking her, which led to considerable distortion in the sound design. A legitimate, opera-caliber mezzo would certainly have served this production better -- but it wouldn't have put as many suckers in the seats.

The real star of the Kennedy Center's Regina is soprano Sheryl Woods. As "Birdie" Hubbard, an aging, alcoholic Southern belle, Woods sings with consummate skill and restraint. Her slightly faded coloratura proves well-suited to her character; it's no surprise, then, to learn that Woods is best known for playing another classic Southern neuraesthenic, Blanche Dubois, in Andre Previn's opera Streetcar Named Desire. (I think Regina is the better work.) Other standouts include veteran opera singer Timothy Noble, who brings just a hint of menace to elder brother Ben Hubbard, and Mark Ledbetter, who strikes precisely the right balance between opera and musical comedy as prodigal son Leo.

Conductor Steven Mercurio gave a flamboyant performance at the podium, leaping and gesturing like Bernstein in his prime. Despite his exuberance, the orchestra itself was fairly well-behaved, downplaying Blitzstein's ear-stabbing chords and dissonance, and emphasizing the moonlight-and-magnolias ambience. Occasionally the orchestra threatened to overpower the singers, but Mercurio managed to pull them from the brink in time. To give the evening a decorous patina of multiculturalism, the Kennedy Center employed a Black gospel choir from Metropolitan Baptist Church as the opera's chorus. Blitzstein's score offered precious few opportunities for this group to shine, but they acquitted themselves admirably. Gerald Freedman's direction of the actors was far more thoughtful than is customary in grand opera (though in the Act II party scene, several dancers had to stumble over and around the furniture).

One final note: I went to see Regina with my friend Rick Sincere. I'm basically a pedant who stumbled into reviewing, but Rick is an honest-to-goodness theater critic. He loves musicals and is quite well-versed in their lore, so whenever I need an expert opinion on Broadway, I usually ask him. In some ways, my own tastes lean toward opera more than musical theater, probably because I've had some classical vocal training and know how opera is meant to be sung. Given our respective areas of expertise, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that Rick's impression of the opera differed considerably from my own. Rick understood LuPone perfectly, but couldn't decipher the opera singers until the final scene. I, on the other hand, understood the opera singers perfectly, but couldn't make heads or tails of LuPone's mush-mouthed delivery. Musical comedy and traditional opera don't blend as easily as one might think: They require not only different styles of performance, but also different strategies for listening. I suppose I can thank Blitzstein for occasioning this paltry insight -- though alas, he seemed to learn it a bit late.

Regina, with Patti LuPone, plays at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall through Saturday night. Tickets range from $20 to $75, and as far as this production is concerned there's not a bad seat in the house. For more information or for tickets, click here.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Not-So-Grand Hotel

Hitler's private retreat at Berchtesgaden is now the site of a brand-new luxury hotel. Technically, it's the "InterContinental Resort Berchtesgaden," but wags in the travel press have simply dubbed it the Hitler Hotel.

An InterContinental spokeswoman has informed USA Today that the 138-room hotel will be "honest and forthright, but not celebratory." Still, with rates starting at four hundred dollars (American) per night, what's not to celebrate? Guests in the "Hitler Hotel" can sleep quietly, surrounded by every conceivable amenity, mere yards from the spot where the Fuehrer and his henchmen discussed the murder of eleven million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents. From their own private balcony, they can enjoy the scenic Alpine views that delighted Hitler's eye as he planned world domination. The hotel even boasts an indoor pool and a deluxe spa, just the thing people will need to relax and unwind after they reflect on what occurred there, not so very long ago. Any tired businessman can take the wife and kids -- or better yet, the mistress -- for a weekend at the Hitler Hotel, where they can be part of a glorious new chapter in the history of the German people.

While we're on the subject of German history, that USA Today article quotes German historian Volker Dahm, who states that "The best way to demystify places associated with the Nazis is to allow normal life to go on there." You can't argue with him there: After all, there's hardly a spot in Continental Europe that isn't somehow associated with the Nazis. But some places, like the Berchtesgaden retreat, are connected far more intimately to the Fascist menace. These places weren't merely affected by Nazi policy; they were where that policy was formed. Try as Dahm might, he cannot turn these chambers of horror into theme parks. Nor can he bring eleven million souls back from the dead.

You'd think the Germans would have learned this by now. Obviously, not enough have.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]