Imaginative choices, uneven singing mark St. Louis Opera Theatre

In 10 short years, the St. Louis Opera Theatre has become one of the most important summer opera ventures in the land. Under the guidance of Richard Gaddes, the company has attained several outstanding landmarks: Jonathan Miller's United States operatic staging debut was here in 1982 '82 with Mozart's ``Cos`i fan tutte.'' Stephen Paulus's ``The Postman Always Rings Twice'' was given its world premi`ere here (in '82), then taken to the Edinburgh Festival ('83) as Opera Theatre became the first US opera company to perform there.

Opera Theatre performs in the 900-seat-plus Loretto-Hilton Theater on the Webster University campus. This modified three-quarter-thrust-stage auditorium, with a rudimentary pit that (uncomfortably) accommodates some 30 musicians, allows young voices to project without forcing, and makes involvement with the stage something tangible.

In this 10th anniversary season, the selection of the four-opera, five-week season was, as ever, imaginative -- Mozart's ``Idomeneo,'' Rossini's ``Barber of Seville,'' and the world premi`eres of Paulus's ``The Woodlanders'' and Minoru Miki's ``Joruri.'' As always, all operas were sung in English. As always, the casts featured fledgling singers, along with those on the thresholds of fine careers, as well as some seasoned alumni. Also this year, Mr. Gaddes steps aside, handing the reigns reins of command to Charles McKay (executive director), John Nelson (musical director), and Colin Graham (artistic director).

Scheduling precluded my seeing ``Joururi,'' which, from all reports, was a quintessential Opera Theatre show -- musically, visually, vocally. Of the three remaining operas, ``Barber'' was the sleekest and best sung. The Paulus, while seriously flawed, boasted a final act that showed where the work could go when (and if) overhauled. A problematic ``Idomeneo'' reflected the problems of the opera world in general. All were brilliantly lit by Peter Kaczorowski.

After the startling success of ``Postman,'' Mr. Paulus, under the guidance of his librettist (and director) Mr. Graham, chose to tackle a full-fledged romantic opera based on a particularly thorny Thomas Hardy novel. The second act has some moments of power and conviction, but only the final act gives any sense that the composer really believes in the story, the plot conventions, and the characters. The 50-minute first act is laboriously constructed by Mr. Graham -- with pages and pages of exposition, allowing the composer no time to create a sound world in which the town of Little Hintock, and its residents, could have a collective and individual musical profile.

The production here was hampered by Richard M. Isackes's ungainly, cartoonish forest with a boardwalk and a raked disk on which most of the action took place. Mr. Graham's one-on-one direction was well focused, but the ongoing series of heavy scene changes disrupted the dramatic flow -- particularly in the first act. As for casting, with the notable exception of Dan Sullivan as George Melbury, few of the singers were vivid enough actors to make one overlook their various vocal shortcomings. Happily, in the pit, Richard Buckley in his Opera Theatre debut strove mightily to give his fragile voices a supportive framework. He breathed passion into the best music, and the members of the St. Louis Symphony played like a much larger ensemble.

``Barber'' showed off -- exultantly -- the fresh side of this youthful company. The Sarah Ventura production frothed along smoothly, with more simplicity and wit than empty horseplay. In the title role, Robert Orth's lyric baritone rang securely in all ranges, particularly his fearless top; he has a stage personality of ebullient naturalness. Stella Zambalis's Rosina was strongly presented, her lovely mezzo used with facility in the coloratura passagework.

Marc DuBois, a Canadian with a lightweight tenor, was a stylish, elegantly phrased Almaviva, capable of all the coloratura (save in the pointless final aria that should have been deleted). Peter Strummer sang Dr. Bartolo forthrightly; Greg Ryerson's often-pleasurable Basilio was occasionally underpitched. In the pit, Leonard Slatkin, a relative newcomer to opera, offered a smooth, buoyant reading of a score that can too often sound hackneyed.

``Idomeneo'' was staged as a play within a play. A modern-day Cretan village, under the guidance of its Greek Orthodox metropolitan, enacts the pagan story of king Idomeneo, who is forced to sacrifice his son, Idamante, to appease Neptune. Director Robert Carsen let much of this ``Idomeneo'' move with eloquence, and he cleverly maneuvered around the set-piece, string-of-arias nature of this score. True, some of the gesturings looked hokey; some lumpy transitions to new scenes invited inappropriate applause. But generally, the characters behaved like real people, not stock stereotypes. And ultimately the production was fully graspable without the play-within-a-play conceit.

Musically, it was a somewhat rough evening. The orchestra was in unruly form, and conductor John Nelson seemed unable to smooth things out enough to allow his views of the magnificent score to be heard. In the title role, Michael Myers's innate stoic dignity could not compensate for the weak acting or for the dryness of his tenor. As Idamante, Patricia Schuman, recently turned soprano, seemed consistently on the threshold of vocal troubles. The Ilia, Sylvia McNair, tended to push her beautiful lyric soprano, rather than relax into Mozart's haunting vocal lines. Ashley Putnam, an imposing presence as the fiery Electra, also grappled with her share of vocal problems in this demanding role.

Only Hans Gregory Ashbaker, as the High Priest of Neptune, seemed comfortable in his role. But then again, ``Idomeneo'' is no easy opera. Ironically, the assembled principals should have been very good. But the current opera world is a hungry monster that eats up potential talent with frightening rapidity. Thus, this ``Idomeneo'' served as something of a warning -- not perhaps what St. Louis intended, but instructive nonetheless. 30{et

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