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When It Comes to Opera, Walking Dead Trump German Romanticism

New York Observer

James Jorden

When opera buffs gather during an intermission—or any of the other many instances these people have time on their hands—their conversation tends to turn not to the current performance or even how great things used to be 30 years ago. Instead, they play the game of “why not?”

Why not, they ask, cast Anna Netrebko as Desdemona in Otello? Why not do a production of Lohengrin using a live swan? Or, even more urgently, why not produce [insert title of obscure opera here]?

A title you occasionally will hear “inserted” is Carl Maria von Weber’s 1823 melodrama Euryanthe, which made an appearance Sunday at Bard SummerScape, the first staging of this opera in the United States since 1914. Unfortunately, the answer to the “why not” was, simply and bluntly, “because it’s not a very good opera.”

The spotty performance history of Euryanthe even in Weber’s native Germany is most often blamed on the rickety libretto by Helmina von Chézy. It’s a gothic tale in which the noble maiden Euryanthe is privy to her beloved Adolar’s family scandal: his sister Emma committed suicide upon hearing of the death of her lover, and her ghost cannot rest until the tears of an innocent fall upon a ring on the hand of her corpse. Euryanthe blurts out this secret to the scheming Eglantine, who’s also in love with Adolar, and the villainess frames the heroine as a wanton woman. After more than three hours of slut shaming and a last-minute appearance by dead Emma, all is resolved happily.

Even sillier stories than this Chézy libretto have yielded popular operas, but a bigger problem here is that Weber’s charmingly romantic music mostly fails to flow from scene to scene. Expertly composed choruses, arias and duets all sound like stand-alone numbers, creating a fragmentary effect.

Once, though, Weber crafts a scene as dramatic as anything in opera before Wagner. At the beginning of the third act, the disillusioned Adolar and the heartbroken Euryanthe wander through a forest. He decided to kill her and then himself; she protests her innocence. The give and take is magically fluid, not aria or duet or recitative, rather simply musical drama.

If this production, performed at the intimate Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, didn’t make the best case for the work, that wasn’t the fault of the singers. They were all fine, in particular Ryan Kuster, smoothly malevolent as the vicious Lysiart. His lithe bass-baritone never hardened even in the most frenzied outbursts, and the dark, noble timbre of the voice made his deception seem all the more plausible.

Tenor William Burden took a scene or two to warm up, but eventually sounded nobly anguished as Adolar, with a moving sob in his voice in the forest scene. Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer sounded a little tentative as the wicked Eglantine, but Ellie Dehn, also a soprano, gave her all as Euryanthe, with exciting top notes and an attractively wistful timbre. In the fatherly role of benevolent King Ludwig, Peter Volpe unfurled a rich deep bass.

More problematic was the production by Kevin Newberry. He transposed the medieval tale to the middle of the 19th century, with the women of the court in identical crinoline gowns designed by Jessica Jahn, and the action taking place in a dreamlike palace room with translucent walls, through which an encroaching forest could be glimpsed. Movement was subdued and formal, with the chorus arranged as if for a concert. In the forest scene, when, according to the libretto, Adolar is suddenly ambushed by a giant serpent, Mr. Newberry had a gnarled treelike structure slowly lowered onto the stage. Mr. Burden did his best to wrestle with what looked like a disused Dale Chihuly chandelier, but the effect brought to mind Bela Lugosi’s battle with the rubber octopus in Ed Wood’s film Bride of the Monster.

If I decided to give this opera a second chance, though, it would be because I think it deserves better conducting than the stiff, pedantic baton waving by SummerScape’s music director Leon Botstein. Page after page of handsomely composed music meandered by, the fast bits sounding too slow and the slow bits sounding too fast. The lively choruses were deadly and the ghost music was not scary in the slightest.

As a conductor, Mr. Botstein is something of a musical zombie, so maybe he should turn his attention to a new piece called La Zombiata, billed as “an opera farce with zombies” in its premiere with Fresh Squeezed Opera Company. The troupe, headed by composer/librettist Jillian Flexner and director/performer Maggie Rascoe, presented the brief spoof to a packed house of about 70 in Bernie West Black Box Theater at Baruch College on Saturday night, and it was all fun, even when now and then things went a little wrong.

It was the kind of show where the conductor, Whitney George, enters, starts to give a downbeat, and then turn to the audience and says, “Could someone sitting next to the air conditioner turn off the fan? There’s a switch right next to the outlet.” The ensuing silence gave way to a quirky, jokey score with some expert vocal writing, set to a deliberately banal libretto that somehow managed to send up both Verdi’s La Traviata and the general concept of zombies in barely 45 minutes.

Ms. Flexner’s music alternates between airy chords hovering on the edge of tonality with driving ostinato effects, and in between she quotes melodies both from Verdi and (inexplicably) Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The plot is one of those boy zombie meets girl zombie stories, with the tragic ending swapped out for a happy one, because, after all, how can you end a zombie tale with a death scene?

In most of these off-off operas, the women singers are miles better than the men, but that wasn’t the case here: Aaron Blankenfeld as the loving Chirstolpho revealed a winsome lyric tenor, in contrast to the straight-toned voices of Kristina Malinaukaite as his romantic interest Philonia and Ms. Rascoe as the meddling Xenobia. Of the several hats Ms. Rascoe wears, “singer” may not be the best fit, but if ever she does standup comedy I’ll be there. Her impromptu tussle with a collapsing cardboard tree was, I thought, the highlight of the show. Any good comic knows how to hurl a recalcitrant offstage, but it takes a great one to cap the scene with truly epic side eye.

In fact, here’s a suggestion for the folks at Bard: if you want someone to coach Mr. Burden on stage combat with an artificial tree (and you should!), you need to give Ms. Rascoe a call.

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