The Drifter, the Schemer, And Two Sneaky Lawyers

`The Postman Always Rings Twice' fits the bill for opera with sizzle

FROM the mournful alto sax opening to the dramatically percussive ending, the Boston Lyric Opera can claim a production that provides compelling theater as well as enticing music.

``The Postman Always Rings Twice'' has the moody quality and look of an Edward Hopper painting: The shadows and empty spaces are filled with latent menace.

The setting is a roadside sandwich shop called Twin Oaks in 1930s California. A drifter named Frank shows up and is hired by the owner, Nick, to pump gas and help out. Frank meets Nick's sultry young wife Cora, and in less time than it takes to fry an egg the two are flashing hot glances at each other. As their affair heats up, Frank urges Cora to go away with him. Cora, with her streak of hard business sense, realizes that if they left she'd be worse off than she is now. But Cora is not above suggesting to Frank that they stay and murder her husband.

The title refers to the pair escaping punishment the first time, but retribution, in the form of death, becomes inescapable the second. James Cain wrote the novel on which the story is based in 1934. Cain, who began his career as a journalist, wasted no adjectives: His crime drama races along with a macho terseness that Sylvester Stallone would envy, as in the line, ``I had to have her if I hung for it. I had her.''

THE book, which was banned as obscene in some cities, has been made into several films; the two best-known starred Lana Turner and John Garfield in 1946 and Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson in 1981. Cain's novel and the two movies give a mug shot of Frank and Cora as reckless, lust-driven, and amoral, and the game they play is an outgrowth of their greedy and unsavory natures.

For the opera, librettist Colin Graham and composer Stephen Paulus focus more on the ill-fated love-story angle. This choice provides a plusher environment for songs of seduction, love, and betrayal than would have been possible with a pair of happy-go-lucky criminals.

Paulus's music is a successful hybrid of sounds. He uses piano, saxophone, and clarinet phrases to give a Depression-era authenticity underneath the orchestration. Xylophones lend a mocking undertone in places, like some devil rattling bones in a graveyard. The music is unexpectedly melodious and richly layered. Paulus also knows how to keep interludes from becoming simply filler material, and his overall sense of the opera's construction allows him to build the momentum going into key scenes.

One powerful scene is that of Nick's murder. Frank, Cora, and Nick are riding in a convertible along a narrow cliff road, and the men make the ravines echo with their drunken singing. With the aid of pre-recorded and amplified vocals, the echoes provide an eerie accompaniment to the killing. Frank strikes Nick down in mid song and the dying man's echo rings out over the stage and into the theater with unnerving clarity and force.

Graham's libretto captures the essence of Cain's prose and provides a solid foundation for the music. Just as important, Graham brings a firm and experienced hand to his direction of the singers. He steers them safely through difficult scenes and helps shape their performances into believable portrayals - with one big exception.

Soprano Annalisa Winberg, as Cora, seems to be posing much of the time. Instead of projecting sly sexiness and barely contained ambition, Winberg exudes little more than an icy remoteness. Winberg's singing is beautiful, but her operatic diction is troublesome. Because she is supposed to have come from the same dismal side of the tracks as Frank, her formal phrasing of the slangy '30s text places her in a class way above Frank. It's hard to believe she'd ever fall for a plebeian like him.

Franco Pomponi, who sings the role of Frank, started out tentatively but soon allowed himself to be swept along with his character's passion and restless energy. By the middle of Act II, he sings and paces as if he would rip up the floorboards. Pomponi's baritone sounds strong (with an occasional break) and he handles the libretto's vernacular more successfully than Winberg.

Comic relief from all the plotting and coupling takes the form of a soft-shoe song-and-dance number between the district attorney (sung by Daniel Sullivan) and Cora and Frank's lawyer (Carroll Freeman). Freeman lurches and leers with inspired humor, and both corrupt counselors ratchet up the sleaze factor.

BECAUSE a recording of the opera has not been released in the 12 years of its existence - due to copyright restrictions - it is hard to judge the Boston Lyric's orchestra against precedent. On opening night, the music flowed smoothly from the pit and the orchestra laid back just enough to stay out of the singers' way.

This production ranks as a ``tech heavy'' opera. There are numerous backdrops, a giant turntable, the interior and exterior of the sandwich shop, roadside billboards, and even an old car. Some clunking scenery and glimpses of stagehands are inevitable. But the visual impact is worth an occasional distraction. The stage is saturated with color, from the green of the gas pumps to the false-bright yellow of the kitchen and the red of Cora's kimono. The full effect of music, song, and setting is outstanding.

* ``The Postman Always Rings Twice'' continues at Boston's Emerson Majestic Theater tonight and Friday at 7:30, and Sunday afternoon at 3:00.

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