Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wagner fans find Valhalla in Vermont

The emerging post-pandemic world is witnessing all kinds of artistic miracles but one of the most astonishing I've seen took place last week -- the resurrection of a wild, improbable idea that Richard Wagner's daunting operatic Ring cycle could be produced in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont (pop. 12,000).

The Latchis marquee also advertised
films in two of the theaters - "Emily"
 and "Beast."
Theatrical reawakening took place with two performances each of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, two of the four Ring operas, in a semi-staged performance at Brattleboro's historic, ornate Latchis Theater.

They were produced by a new company called Tundi Productions, the brainchild of conductor Hugh Keelan and soprano Jenna Rae, who are married.

With accompaniment by highly-skilled local orchestra players conducted with verve and finesse by Keelan, a company of professional opera singers threw their hearts into the work, communicating with dynamic beauty the essence of Wagner's deeply-felt insight into men, women and the gods of legend. 

There were excellent costumes, minimal stage furnishings and props, and video effects and surtitles on a scrim between the upstage orchestra and the downstage playing area. The focus was on the music. 

But first, some background, dating from pre-pandemic times.    

In August, 2019, Tundi staged Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, possibly as a four-hour hors d'oeuvre to the 21 hours of the Ring

Tristan (which gave its name to the production company, i.e. "T und I") and the Ring are usually performed by major companies since they require a full orchestra (plus some instruments that Wagner added, such as anvils and his invention, the Wagner tuba) and the kind of big, tireless voices that can soar above all that sound.

Though I had seen the company's Turandot in 2018, I'd never seen Tristan, coming late to the Wagner canon since my father had had a run-in with the Nazis (a small matter of a year in a prison camp) in World War II and, as a result, Wagner was never heard in my opera-loving household.
I'd had my first taste of the Bard of Bayreuth in the 1990s in Toronto, with Der Fliegende Holländer and my eyes were opened. What was this extraordinary sensory flow of constant music, somehow awakening deep emotion? How did he do that?

However, Götterdämmerung, at the Metropolitan Opera about a decade ago, was my entry portal to the Ring. Now, I'd made fun of those Ring crazies who'd pay many, many dollars to fly around the world for many, many hours of what had to be dense, tedious opera. I wasn't the only one. Who hasn't seen Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny in What's Opera, Doc?, singing "Kill the wabbit!" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries?" 

However, a tenor friend was an extra and offered me a ticket in the top ring of the opera house. I came equipped with a sandwich for this 5 1/2-hour marathon -- and was completely blown away by the music and the drama.

Why was Brunnhilde's family so awful and why was she so unlucky in love? Never mind that joking about a horned helmet and stout soprano, Brunnhilde met every betrayal with moral courage and was the true hero of the whole story! I was in tears at Siegfried's funeral music. I was aghast as Brunnhilde rode her faithful steed Grane into that enormous fire at the end.

I staggered out of the opera house, determined to go back and see the other three parts of the Ring - Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried. I took my then-14-year-old daughter to see Rheingold at the opera house and saw the other two (saving $$) at the Met in HD at a local movie theater.  

The cast of Die Walküre (including the Valkyries)
takes a bow at the Latchis Theater.
Forward to Brattleboro. Tundi's Tristan, with tenor Alan Schneider and Rae in the title roles, measured up to the Met in the most important realm - vocal quality.

As the story of the lovers gave a new dynamic to “I hate you but I love you,” Schneider and Rae poured forth fabulous waves of sound, with Keelan conducting.

You can read that Tristan features "Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestra color and harmonic suspension." Or you can simply marvel at the way the master storyteller keeps you wondering, musically, what's coming next.  

Jenna Rae
The two Ring operas again featured top-notch singers, with Rae as a passionate Brunnhilde, Cailin Marcel Manson as a dignified Wotan (the supreme god), Sondra Kelly as Wotan's wronged wife Fricka, Brian Ember as a riveting Alberich (the resentful dwarf who steals the Rhine gold) -- but it's difficult to single out particular cast members, as the entire ensemble was very strong.

Veda Crewe and Todd Lyon are credited in the program with costume design and I was particularly taken with Crewe's costumes for the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who build Valhalla for Wotan. They looked like living columns of rock.

Possibly more love could have been given to the sparse stage furnishings and the program, with tiny type and no story synopsis.   
Hugh Keelan

I liked such staging delights as the three Rhinemaidens swirling strings of green lighted cords to symbolize the river's waves and the Valkyries using the balcony and side levels of the theater to join in their "ho jo to ho" battle call. 

With the orchestra driving the "Ride of the Valkyries" and eight sopranos, playing swaggering, badass women flying on magic horses, in full throat, the effect was absolutely thrilling. 
If Tundi can come out of a two-year pandemic pause with such vigor, then its future remains bright. A Ring cycle in maple syrup country? Sign me up!


Monday, August 8, 2022

Traveling down Heartbreak Road

"Fellow Travelers," a story set in the 1950s era of political paranoia dominated by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is the contemporary work in this year's Seagle Festival opera program in the Adirondack mountain town of Schroon Lake, N.Y.

A work with a tender heart by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, "Fellow Travelers" is based on the novel by Thomas Malton, which traces the doomed love affair of Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller, federal government employees.

McCarthy's zeal to root out supposed Communists in the State Department and the U.S. Army also included homosexuals who, the theory went, were security risks as they could be blackmailed by a foreign agent who might threaten to reveal their sexual orientation.

McCarthy (R-Wis.) exploited genuine concern about the rise of the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain of repression across Eastern Europe, China's conversion to Communism and the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs for passing classified nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union.

Throughout the mid-50s, he and his lawyer ally, Roy Cohn, led or influenced campaigns of persecution, accusing people in government, academia, Hollywood and the military of being Communists, Soviet spies or sympathizers, i.e., "fellow travelers."

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
In the opera, Fuller doesn't have to travel far to find Laughlin, who is a young reporter sitting on a park bench at Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, reviewing the notes he took for a story about McCarthy's wedding. 

In a pre-show lecture, Seagle Artistic Director Darren K. Woods noted that Dupont Circle was a noted gay cruising area. As homosexual acts were illegal in many states, men often met clandestinely in public places, but were also vulnerable to arrest by undercover police. 

Laughlin, played with shy sweetness by Daniel Esteban Lugo, is drinking milk with his lunch, prompting the self-assured Fuller, known as Hawk, playfully to dub him "Skippy." Fuller, smoothly played by Joel Clemens, recommends Laughlin for a speechwriting job in the office of Sen. Potter, Laughlin sends him a thank-you gift and Fuller drops by Laughlin's apartment.

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Laughlin falls for Fuller's tough, savvy magnetism, tinged with danger - "I'm your first. I own you," Fuller tells him.

Spears has written music that brilliantly matches these vocal parts and characterizations, brought to life by Lugo's supple tenor and Clemens' thrilling baritone. They have a lovely duet, relaxing in Laughlin's apartment, just two men on a bed, singing about placing "my head on your arm."

After their sensual encounter, Laughlin has a slight problem - he's a devout Catholic, a denomination that to this day considers homosexuality "disordered." In a wonderful aria, he begins with "Forgive me, Holy Father, I confess," but ends with "Thank you, Holy Father, for sending him to me." Is there a more poignantly conflicted expression of love and faith, expressed without rancor?

From left, Daniel Esteban Lugo, Emily Finke, 
Joel Clemens and Shannon Richards in 
"Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Although gay couples have lived peacefully together since the dawn of time, in this very different mid-century world, Laughlin and Fuller can't settle down together. 

Fuller doesn't even want to, proposing a threesome to the shocked Laughlin, then telling him he's not the monogamous type. 

In this shadow world, women play particularly fraught roles. Hawkins' assistant Mary Johnson is attracted to him, but accepts reality. In another gorgeous aria, Shannon Richards' glowing soprano expresses Mary's concern ("I worry") about the fates of the two men.

In a plot turn that seems to be dropped in from nowhere but has obvious ramifications to today's news, Johnson reveals she is pregnant from a one-night stand but "knows a doctor in New Orleans" who "takes care" of such things. 

When Laughlin, attempting to escape his anguished relationship, enlists in the Army, Hawkins marries another office worker, Lucy (Emily Finke), and tries to take up the life of a good suburban heterosexual husband. It was, and is, an all-too-common sham that devastated both men and women.

In the last few scenes, the story leans toward soap opera and seems to meander to its inevitable heartbroken farewell, but does reflect the ambivalence of each man's tie to their relationship.  

In his lecture, Woods said that composer Spears' inspirations are George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass -- 18th century Baroque and modern minimalism. Glass' typical repetitive musical phrases and Handel's graceful embellishments give Spears' music a shimmering beauty and endless interest. Seagle's cast of "fellow travellers" and the dual pianists, Music Director Neill Campbell and Assistant Music Director Lindsay Woodward, made the most of it. 

Under the overall stage direction of Richard Kagey, Evan Johnson's spare set design perfectly melded with Liza Schweitzer's lighting design. 

"Fellow Travelers," was co-commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Cincinnati Opera, premiered in 2016 and has had nine productions by major opera companies. It deserves many more.