|Yeon Jung Lee as Le Feu and Amy Yarham as L'Enfant|
It was a night of sheer delight spent with Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. Credit for this extraordinary success must be attributed to the clever direction of renowned James Robinson, who told the tales with originality that was still true to the origins of the two works; to the beautifully balanced sound of the conservatory's orchestra under the baton of Pierre Vallet; and, above all, to the superb singing and acting of the young artists, mainly graduate level students.
The wisely chosen program comprised two French works of note, the first of which, Jacques Ibert's 1924 Persée et Andromède, has never before been performed in the United States, and the second of which, Maurice Ravel's 1925 L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, we have enjoyed on several prior occasions.
Ibert's librettist "Nino" (a pen name for his brother-in-law Michel Veber) turned the tale of Perseus' rescue of Andromeda on its head. In the myth, she has been chained to a rock as a sacrifice (long story!) and dreams of being rescued from the monster Cathos by a great hero. Perseus arrives on a winged horse (Pegasus), slays the monster, and carries her off to live happily ever after (sort of).
In Nino's libretto, Perseus is so arrogant when he kills Cathos that Andromeda realizes that she has loved the monster all along and declines to leave with Perseus. Pining over Cathos, her grief brings him back to life as a handsome prince.
But wait! Mr. Robinson's concept is that this all takes place in a French museum with a reproduction of Cesari's 1596 painting of the legend occupying pride of place, flanked by supposed studies for the work. The museum guard must ride herd on a group of uniformed schoolgirls who get too close to the velvet rope and a mother with her two obstreperous children.
A beautiful redhead enters and lies writhing on a bench as she dreams of, what else, a romantic encounter. Soprano Bryn Holdsworth, whom we have written about before, sang with terrific tone and acted with conviction. She even convinced us that she was a natural redhead, so well did she embody her character. And that's acting! It was a stellar performance, marked by some fine French diction, coached by Bénédicte Jourdois.
The superbly coached schoolgirls acted as Greek chorus, commenting on and giggling over the sleeping Andromeda, just as schoolgirls would. What an inspired concept! Chorus Master Daniela Candillari must have worked very hard to achieve this success.
As the museum guard, bass Hidenori Inoue, was peevish but far from a monster. He serenaded Andromeda with full round tone and tried to ease her boredom with stories and symbolic chess games.
Tenor Taehwan Ku made a humorously arrogant Perseus, waving a silk scarf with an image of Medusa imprinted, in place of the Gorgon's head. The "monster" was not intimidated.
Allen Moyer's set was a fine recreation of a museum while Paul Palazzo's lighting contributed a great deal, adding glowing warmth to the arrival of Perseus. James Schuette's costumes were consistently mid-20th c. and Tom Watson's hair and makeup design was apt.
And oh, that music! Much of it was impressionistic and shimmered with painterly colors, sounding just right for the setting. That made the climactic moment of crescendo all that more affecting. We were curious about the placement of the harps off to one side, and the percussion off to the other. Whatever the reason, it sounded sensational.
Ravel's charming work L'Enfant et Les Sortilèges started life as a ballet with a book by Colette; but this baby had a decade long gestation, finally achieving the stage in Monte Carlo in 1925. It is a favorite of music conservatories since it employs a large cast. It tells the tale of a naughty boy who treats people, animals, and furniture with equal contempt.
When the aforementioned furniture comes to life and turns against him, and the animals speak to him of their suffering, he learns compassion. It is a wonderful lesson for children, but also for adults. Behavior has consequences!
As the eponymous child, Australian mezzo-soprano Amy Yarham sang with beautiful inflected phrasing and easily understood French; moreover she created a most believable little boy bored with his homework, throwing a tantrum of destruction to retaliate against his mother.
The entire cast was excellent and we hesitate to single out only a few but we were struck by the precise coloratura of soprano Yeon Jung Lee who created a lot of heat with her red-sequined gown as well as her singing.
The audience loved the pair of fighting cats--mezzo Rachel Stewart and Christopher Stockslager and the linguistic hijinks of Emma Mansell's Chinese Cup and Gregory Giovine's Teapot.
We have always enjoyed Noragh Devlin who enacted a matronly looking mother, in high mid-20th c. style. And Michael Gracco's Grandfather Clock created a striking image.
Again, the sets and costumes were terrific.
Ravel's music for this work is highly eclectic and benefits enormously from a most colorful orchestration. The MSM Orchestra captured every nuance.
(c) meche kroop
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