A weekend at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

I was in St. Louis this past weekend to attend three performances at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, founded in 1976 with a mission of performing standard as well as new and unusual works in English, with casts of young American singers.  The noted British stage director Colin Graham was the artistic director until just a few years ago, shortly before his death.  As a protege of Benjamin Britten, Graham was responsible for presenting many of Britten’s works in St. Louis, including the four-act version of Billy Budd and Gloriana (with Christine Brewer, in 2005, which was my first encounter with the company).

This season was typical, with Mozart’s Il Pastor Fido, Puccini’s La Boheme, Richard Strauss’s Salome, and John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, in a newly revised version designed for smaller opera theaters than the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned the work and first performed it in 1991.  In the space of two days, I saw the Corigliano, Strauss and Puccini works.

La Boheme is Puccini’s weepy masterpiece.  I don’t feel like I’ve had a satisfying performance unless my eyes get moist at the end.  This was no exception, with a talented young cast that looked the part of the young Parisians.  The production was imaginative, funny and touching.

I had real reservations about Salome:  how would it work in a small theater the size of the Loretto-Hilton at Webster University, where Opera Theatre performs? The role Salome was being performed by Kelly Kaduce, a local favorite, having previously performed as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly and as the title character in David Carlson’s Anna Karenina (recently released on CD).  I am happy to report that she was not swallowed alive by the part itself or the orchestra.  (Strauss famously commented the role of Salome requires the body of a 16-year-old and the voice of Brunnhilde, a virtually impossible physical and vocal combination.)  Kelly Kaduce was convincing as the Judaean princess who falls in lust with John the Baptist and demands the Baptist’s head on a silver platter after Salome agrees to dance the “dance of the seven veils” for her pedophile step-father King Herod, while her mother, Herodias watches.  Kelly Kaduce’s voice rode the waves of the the orchestra sound, but she was also surprisingly intimate when necessary.  Just as La Boheme should make one weepy, Salome should make the audience feel like they should go out for a collective brisk walk at the end of Salome’s twenty-minute final scene in which she fondles and makes out with the severed head of John the Baptist.  (I’ve never before witnessed a severed head used as a sex toy.) Ms. Kaduce’s antics with the head make no secret that this is a horny, spoiled teenage girl who gets what she wants.  The whole opera had the necessary creepiness to be effective.  A word about the staging: the libretto (based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, originally written in French, translated into German for the opera libretto, and here performed in English) calls for John the Baptist to be in a dark cistern below the stage floor.  The St. Louis theater does not have that capability, so the director Séan Curran and stage designer Bruno Schwengl, came up with an imaginative solution, a huge round plate at the back of the stage that is removed to reveal an iris-like aperture that opens and closes to reveal John the Baptist (and later to admit the executioner into the Baptist’s dungeon.)  Gregory Dahl was hunky and commanding vocally as John the Baptist (although, dressed in loin cloth, it was hard to disguise the fact that this desert prophet had not missed any meals.)  Michael Hayes and Maria Zifchak were effective as Herod and Herodias.  This was a very compelling and memorable afternoon of music theater.  Kelly Kaduce would likely never sing the role in a house as large as the Met, but she made a brilliant impression here.  When she was on the stage (which is most of the time) she was the center of attention.

My real reason for traveling to St. Louis was to see John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, which had received its first monumental production at the Met, directed by Colin Graham, in 1991, and for which no expense was spared, technically or musically.  It was revived once at the Met, appeared at the Chicago Lyric Opera and perhaps once in Europe, then fell off the map:  it was simply too expensive to produce.  The Met performers included such stars as Teresa Stratas and Renee Fleming, as well as many more (there are 25 named parts in the opera, plus a huge orchestra, large chorus, dancers, and more. The Met production used every bit of the Met’s enormous technical capability.)  The plot is far too complicated to tell here, but you can find it here.

The new revised performing edition, capably conducted by Brooklyn Philharmonic conductor Michael Christie, was a brilliant success.  The score reflects the three levels of the opera: atmospherics for the ghosts, including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and the playwright Beaumarchais, that inhabit Versailles; pseudo-Mozartian/Rossinian music for the “opera within an opera” that is presented for the Queen; and “realistic” music for the scenes that take place during the blending of time of the opera and the French revolution.  There are so many moments of extraordinary beauty:  Marie Antoinette’s phrase first set to the text “There once was a golden bird” which returns time and again, seeming to represent how the queen was caught up in events not of her choosing; Beaumarchais’s phrase “I risk my soul for you, Antonia”, in which he declares his love for the Queen; the comic music of Figaro, Rosina, Cherubino and the other characters of Beaumarchais’s “opera.”

The soprano Maria Kanyova was perfect as Marie Antoinette.  At first she almost seemed to be channeling Teresa Stratas, who originated the role. (I suspect, however, that this was more the fact of the vocal writing than any conscious attempt to sound like Stratas.)  Ms. Kanyova’s acting was impeccable.  At the end, when she is a tiny figure alone, center stage, reaching out her arms to be joined for eternity with her true love, the playwright Beaumarchais, it was a simple, but spine-tingling moment that I will carry with me for a long time.  It was an astonishing coup de théatre.

The character Beaumarchais is second only to Marie Antoinette in importance in the opera.  Baritone James Westman commanded his role in its many aspects, both musical and dramatic.  There was not a weak link in the entire huge cast.  The staging took advantage of the limitations of the small stage–all of the Met’s grandeur wasn’t necessary.  This new look at the opera made us examine the relationships among the characters.  I agree with critic Sarah Bryan Miller in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that this was a “must-see evening in the theater.”

My two experiences, separated by four years, confirm that opera is very alive and well in St. Louis.  The three performances that I attended were all sold out, and the company seems to have a strong fundraising community upon which to draw.  May they continue to thrive.

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