|Cast of Bonfire of the Vanities....(Photo credit- Lucas Syed)|
Let us begin by saying that we had a helluva good time at Bonfire of the Vanities, a contemporary opera based on Tom Wolfe's 1987 page-turner about Wall Street dishonesty and greed, political opportunism and corruption, and the prevalent racism. Has anything changed in 3 decades? The fact that very little about the story needed to be changed seems to answer the question.
Readers may be astonished that we found so much to like in a contemporary opera sung in English. We don't even need all the fingers of one hand to enumerate the contemporary operas that we enjoyed. Mostly, we are sitting there gritting our teeth and wishing to escape. So let's take a closer look at the grounds for success.
First and foremost is Stefania De Kenessey's eclectic music. There is not a whiff of academia about it; it is clearly written to appeal to contemporary musical tastes of the public, not to critics; it is totally accessible and melodic. One can't help recalling that the titans of the golden age of opera wrote for the PEOPLE and addressed contemporary concerns, whether they were obliged to disguise the theme or not.
The 18-piece chamber orchestra played well under the baton of the excellent Daniela Candillari who successfully captured the mood of the scene, whether serious or funny. There is nothing inherently funny about the themes of the opera but there is usefulness in humor. Art holds a mirror up to society and it is easier to accept what we see when we are able to laugh at ourselves.
So, leavened with some funny lines and absurd situations we are able to laugh at greedy hucksters designing bond issues in which people borrow from themselves (we can't claim to have understood the finance logic), mothers singing lullabies to their children on their iPad's while shopping for luxury goods, rich white folk fawning over and throwing money at black hucksters pleading the cause of philanthropy, furious landlords recording tenants who are abusing rent control, frustrated lawyers looking for guilty white folks to skewer, and alcoholic reporters ready to distort the truth to succeed in tabloid journalism.
Indeed, in the entire story, there is only one honorable character--the one who cannot be found in Mr. Wolfe's book--Tamara Kilmore, an Afro-American attorney who defends the hero Sherman McCoy because SHE BELIEVES HE IS INNOCENT. As sung by the terrific Adrienne Danrich, she is the one character who steps out of our preconceived notions and acts like a fully realized human being.
Randal Turner does an excellent job of portraying the (anti)hero and even evokes sympathy for a man who must lose everything to find his soul. Like so many wealthy people he is unable to really see those outside of his race and class. He has never developed empathy. He just wants to be Master of the Universe. How ironic that he lives on credit and has no money! People who work and save are, in his eyes, objects of contempt.
As his wife Judy, Ann-Carolyn Bird is believable. Will she or won't she stand by her douchebag of a cheating husband??
We particularly enjoyed the characterization of Arthur Ruskin. Benjamin Bloomfield did a superlative job and we were sorry that he was killed off in the first act. In the book he lasted longer, but that was just one of a few alterations of the plot made when the book was adapted as an opera.
As his floozy wife Maria who had sex with anyone and everyone who could serve her interest, we heard Ying Jie Zhou, who was pretty and sexy but whose voice was a bit on the weak side and whose acting was riddled with cliché. The role might have been better cast.
As the cynical Assistant District Attorney who wants to advance his career by nailing a guilty white male, Glenn Seven Allen turned in a superlative performance. We loved his duet with Ms. Danrich. Another excellent characterization was that of Kyle Van Schoonhoven as the alcoholic tabloid journalist Peter Fallow.
As the hospitalized youth Henry Lamb (sacrificial lamb?) whose injury sparked the racial conflagration, Aaron J. Casey gave a fine performance. We liked him best in his soliloquy which became a moving ensemble piece.
Kevin Maynor's Reverend Bacon, a characterization that was probably meant to represent Al Sharpton., had no problem bilking the Rich White Folk or the two pastors (Matthew Tuell and Brett Mutter) who gave him money to establish a day care center for Poor Black Kids. He was masterful at pushing the racial guilt buttons.
Matthew Tuell reappeared heavily disguised as the landlord Kovitzky who garnered a lot of laughs.
What about the libretto? Michael Bergmann, who also directed, wrote short punchy lines that did well in terms of colloquiality and in terms of working with the music. We have observed that ponderous texts in the English language yield incomprehensible music but in this case the short rhyming lines, bordering on doggerel (NOT meant as criticism!) worked extraordinarily well.
Video projections by Doug Underdahl succeeded in creating a New York City atmosphere. Costumes by Christina Hribar were perfect for Reverend Bacon and for the ghetto kids. For the "social X-rays" at the cocktail party and the Wall Street hustlers, they seemed only approximate. Hair and makeup by Ron Wolek were particularly effective for Mr. Bloomfield and Mr.Tuell.
Having updated the work by 30 years, iPads and cell phones could be introduced without detriment and nothing was lost.
The 3 1/2 hours (including two intermissions) flew by without a single longueur. This is what contemporary opera should be--and that's entertainment! It doesn't matter whether you call it opera or American musical theater. The voices were almost all good and they were unamplified. And that's more than enough for our satisfaction.
Finally, let us add that the theater at El Museo del Barrio is the perfect size for this type of work, and that the acoustics were fine. In addition to clearly enunciated English (much easier because of the way the language was employed) the excellent titles were useful in case one missed a word here and there.
(c) meche kroop