ST. LOUIS — AS Opera Theatre of St. Louis nears the close of its 18th season, the company exudes the confidence and pride of an organization that is an internationally acclaimed fixture in the St. Louis cultural landscape.
Its home on the verdant campus of Webster University is a superb environment for a company that is not only about excellence, but also about a place where people can gather for pre-curtain picnics and post-concert chats with the artists.
The Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts lobby is festooned with a magnificent exhibit of original Massenet opera posters. The entire setting exudes civility and culture in the best, least intimidating sense of the word.
This was a particularly strong season for Opera Theatre. The fare included a world premiere, David Carlson's "The Midnight Angel"; Massenet's "Cendrillon"; Mozart's "Don Giovanni"; and Britten's "Billy Budd." Experiencing these operas in the intimate confines of the Loretto-Hilton - a three-quarter thrust arena-style stage - is extraordinary.
The singers do not have the safety of a proscenium to protect them from the scrutiny of the audience. The persistent liability of the space is the orchestra pit beneath the stage area: Though it was expanded a few seasons back to seat (uncomfortably) a maximum of 61, much of the sound remains trapped below stage, and in a piece like "Billy Budd," the compromise is serious indeed.
Opera Theatre is becoming the final bastion of opera sung in English in the United States. English ensures the artists know specifically what they are singing about, and it forces audiences to listen more carefully.
In a work like The Midnight Angel, for which Peter Beagle ("The Last Unicorn") adapted his short story of the same title, the intimacy of the theater was vital.
The plot concerns bitter, sour, socially prominent Lady Neville, and the impact on several friends and relations of her decision to invite Death to her last gala ball. Beagle has added some subplots to his story, set in 1907 London, and turned it into something resembling a Victorian drawing-room drama. Carlson's score opts for clarity of text rather than for sweeping melodic gesture; as a consequence the work rarely catches full operatic fire.
In the second act, it bogs down in a string of small aria monologues that merely stops the action. Nevertheless, it has some appeal for audiences expecting a new opera to be inaccessible. The production (designed by Robert Perdziola) was handsome enough, and director Linda Brovsky kept the action moving.
The cast was excellent, with outstanding performances from Katherine Terrell (Contessa dei Candini), Brad Cresswell (the unprepossessing John Lorimond), and James Maddalena (the dashing Captain Compson). Elaine Bonazzi brought tremendous presence to Lady Neville. In the pit, Stewart Robertson proved a binding force to the evening.
Though this work completed its St. Louis run last night, it will be performed five times this summer at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y. (which, along with the Sacramento Opera, commissioned the work), between July 17 and Aug. 6.
Britten's Billy Budd was offered in its first (1951) four-act version, never before heard in the US. The work is arguably too large for this space, but in Opera Theatre artistic director Colin Graham's strong production, the big choral moments had an impact impossible in a larger space. Though some of the one-on-one confrontations lacked a certain intensity, it was thrilling to see this opera up close in the St. Louis context.
Graham had a Captain Vere of exceptional quality and impact in Peter Kazaras, who has the ability to bring audiences to him, forcing them to experience Vere's moods and inner feelings. At the end, when the evil Claggart has been killed, Budd hung, and the aged Vere states that Budd was the means of his own redemption, the emotional impact is all but overwhelming.
The large cast performed with great commitment. Among the principals, Steven Combs embodied the innocence of Budd commendably, Jeffrey Wells made a compellingly blunt, evil Claggart, and Arthur Woodley a compassionate and effective Dansker. The other hero of this evening was conductor Robert Spano, presiding over a large contingent of the St. Louis Symphony with astonishing facility and dramatic conviction. Clearly this is a major opera conductor in the making. Yet even he could not compensate for that s onic muffling that occurs in the orchestra pit.
Graham's other production, Massenet's Cendrillon ("Cinderella"), was the glistening jewel of the season. This underrated work is, to me, the most enchanting and musically sophisticated setting of this perennial story. Graham's production stressed the psychological aspect of the story over the fairy tale at the expense of a bit of charm. But he scrupulously skirted the potential for sentimentality that too often passes for Massenet style these days.
Brenda Harris's Fairy Godmother, the dominant personality vocally and histrionically, may not have been ideally mellifluous in her coloratura work, but she otherwise proved very expressive. David Evitts's Pandolphe was heartrendingly real. Josepha Gayer earned her laughs and ovation by refusing to make Madame de la Haltiere an overbearingly hollow caricature. Susan Rosenbaum's Lucette (Cendrillon) was reserved yet effective; Mary Ann McCormick's Prince (Massenet wrote the role for a mezzo) had moments of
genuine vocal splendor.
Conductor Carol Crawford kept things moving nicely, though she might have lingered more tenderly on the haunting melodies.
"Don Giovanni" proved to be musically superior, though visually and dramatically, it was depressingly unfocused. Opera Theatre music director Stephen Lord propelled the opera with panache and with a sure sense of both the drama and comedy in Mozart's sublime score.
* This is the final weekend for Opera Theatre this year. Tonight it's "Billy Budd," tomorrow "Don Giovanni" and "Cendrillon," and Sunday, the season closes with another performance of "Billy Budd."