|William Remmers and Rachel Selan|
We could scarcely believe our eyes and ears witnessing Founder/Artistic Director/Conductor/Emcee/Raconteur William Remmers wearing yet another hat. This time we were witnessing his hilarious comic timing as Thomas Brown, the Duke of Islington in disguise, in Sir Arthur Sullivan's 1875 curtain raiser The Zoo. This charming one-act had disappeared from the operatic scene for nearly a century and lucky for us that it was rediscovered in the 1960's and there for us onstage at Hunter College last night as the second part of Utopia Opera's bill of two one-act operas.
The name is strange since Utopia stands for near perfection and this scrappy and very personal opera company offers everything but perfection. Their performances are put together on a shoestring, with whatever serves as scenery and costumes contributed by the cast. But what it doesn't offer in perfection it makes up for in sheer uninhibited fun in a "Let's put on a show" mode. Who knew opera could be so much fun! This is a poorly kept secret as masses of people crowded the 4th floor hallway waiting to be admitted to William Remmer's funhouse.
Sullivan wrote this work without W.S. Gilbert but librettist B.C. Stephenson, using the alias of Bolton Rowe, was no slouch. The lines are brief and punchy and the theme is one of skewering Great Britain's peculiar worship of the aristocracy.
Thomas Brown's love interest runs the refreshment stall at the London Zoo. Her reputation is somewhat suspect, as we learn in her very funny aria. Rachel Selan was an effective performer, singing of her various experiences with various lovers while hoisted in the air on a chair. To win her affection, Mr. Brown devours all her refreshments until he passes out. He finally wins her hand by offering to make her the Duchess of Islington.
There is a second romantic pair, of course. Soprano Katherine Peck has a lovely voice and gave a fine portrayal of Laetitia Grinder, a lovesick maiden whose recalcitrant father (played by Alan Smulen) refuses to let her marry the apothecary who courts her, (a fine Erik Bagger). Of course he keeps threatening suicide. Our nobleman in disguise saves the day with a generous check.
Now who, you may ask, was conducting the fine orchestra whilst Mr. Remmers took to the boards? None other than Jeremy Weissmann. And what an orchestra we had, squeezed as usual onto the right third of the stage and spilling over into the aisles. Under Mr. Weissmann's alert conducting, all the humor of Sullivan's score was captured. Francisco Miranda did some amazing things on the keyboard.
The first part of the evening, conducted by Mr. Remmers, was given over to Ravel's delightful L'enfant et les sortiléges, a work dating back to 1925, a setting of a story by Colette. In this short work a very naughty child, convincingly portrayed by Elsa Quéron, is treated to reprimand and revenge by all the things he has abused--animate and inanimate. Although it has its humor there is also a beautiful dénouement as the boy learns his lesson and becomes humanized.
The funniest bit was the song and dance of the Teapot and the Teacup, performed respectively by Erik Bagger and Brittany Fowler singing a strange amalgam of French, Japanese and Mandarin. Likewise funny was the feline "romance" between Joshua Miller and Shawn Farrar. More touching than funny was the Princess from a fairy tale (the lovely Winnie Nieh) who was in trouble because the boy had torn up the pages of the book that showed her Prince rescuing her with a sword. Jason Brook's flute solo made a fine accompaniment to her aria.
But it was not until the garden scene when the boy is confronted with the tree he wounded with his knife that the shift begins. Ultimately he binds the wound of the Squirrel (Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, who also played Maman), learns compassion and is forgiven. We found this scene touching.
At the Monte Carlo opera, the dancing was choreographed by Balanchine, but we were not deprived of dancing furniture and, even better, dancing frogs, birds and bats. It was impressive the way a simple scarf could become wings and rubber bands could create ears from hair. We have rarely enjoyed ourselves so well at an opera and had an ear-to-ear smile all the way home. We are still smiling!
Utopia's next production will be Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, expanded to four performances on June 5, 6, 12, and 13. We are having trouble imagining how that can be done on a tiny stage on a tiny budget but we are getting accustomed to the idea that William Remmer can accomplish anything with his superfluity of imagination and creativity. Stay tuned!
(c) meche kroop