Sunday, August 7, 2016

Politics as opera

In this fraught political year, the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York has premiered Roscoe, a brilliant work by composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire on the dark methods of governing at the state capital, Albany.

Based on the novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy, this daring work, here directed by Richard Kagey, excitingly advances the cause of modern opera, bringing a story of 20th century political intrigue to the dramatic level of a Rigoletto or a Tosca.
Left, author William Kennedy. Right, composer Evan Mack.
 Illustration/Hudson Sounds

In nurturing Roscoe, the Seagle Music Colony, now in its second century, is also advancing its own cause. Located in the Adirondack mountain town of Schroon Lake, Seagle is a summer training camp for young opera singers, who are shaping the roles in this new work even as they receive vocal, stage and career training.

This year, Seagle's program also includes The Elixir of Love, The Music Man and The Most Happy Fella. It's a courageous move by Seagle Artistic Director Darren K. Woods and General Director Tony Kostecki to present a work that is very different from those three other classics of musical theater and opera. However, Roscoe's four-performance run was a sell-out, proving that audiences want to be engaged by great stories, masterfully told.

The opera opens on V-J Day in 1945, with lawyer and Democratic fixer Roscoe Conway (played on Aug. 6 by Scott Purcell) musing on getting out of politics after two decades as Democratic Party fixer and bagman.

There is an impressionistic feeling from the beginning. The ensemble, singing a wistful punctuation to Roscoe's thoughts, seem to be people from his past. Designer Jim Koehnle's black and gray set features long metal window frames, a visual sense that we are looking into hearts, minds and years.    

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
 Photo/Seagle Music Colony
Hamlet-like, Roscoe's late father, Felix (Jon Oakley), appears as a vision, setting a major theme of the opera - how one generation frees or handcuffs the next.

The swirling plot involves corrupt cops and judges, illegal cockfighting, whorehouses, political payoffs, fixed party conventions (!), Republican and Democratic maneuvering and the questionable parentage of two characters.

Roscoe re-connects with his great love, Veronica (Lauren Cook), whose husband, Elisha (Johnny Salvesen), has committed suicide. However, Veronica's sister, Pamela (Tascha Anderson), is suing for custody of the son, Gilby (Harvey Runyon), she gave up to Veronica for adoption.  

Mack's music echoes the times, with jazz strains, lyrical love themes and intense drama that thrillingly advances the story. The male quartet ending Act I and love duet in Act II are particularly powerful. McGuire's lyrics soar with poetry and author Kennedy's wry and poignant view of these flawed characters.

Musical accompaniment was expertly handled at the Aug. 6 performance by Kostecki as conductor, pianists Jennifer McGuire and Matthew Stephens and percussionist Bob Halek.

Vocally, all the principals exhibited skill and strength, with Purcell, Oakley, Salvesen,
Scott Purcell
Photo/Seagle Music Colony
Cook and Anderson standing out.

However, the Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater, while a beloved venue, has serious limitations, including a small stage that makes blocking (stage movement) and set design somewhat cramped, and uncomfortable seats that should be taken out and set on fire immediately. The colony is currently raising funds for a sorely-needed new theater.  

Those who may be uncertain about modern opera might like to know that Roscoe will be produced in a concert version in October with Metropolitan Opera superstar Deborah Voigt and the Albany Symphony.

It will be fascinating to hear this work fully-orchestrated and it should be headed for a long life in the repertoires of major opera companies.