A double bill of Carlisle Floyd music-theater pieces was presented this past week by the ten year old Little Opera Theater of New York with two rotating casts. The first piece Slow Dusk was the composer’s first opera, written in 1949, and suffers from a less than dramatic libretto, Floyd’s own. He presents himself a the poet of rural America just as Stephen Sondheim is the poet of late 20th c. Manhattan.
The story concerns a young woman Sadie, beautifully sung by soprano Carolina Castells, who performed a lovely aria filled with foreboding. Sadie is in love with young Micah, perfectly sung and acted by tenor John Kaneklides whose star is on the rise. Their marriage is forbidden by Aunt Sadie and the reason had to be learned by consulting Wikipedia. The exposition might have been given by Aunt Sue, sung by Janice Meyerson, whose interesting mezzo was marred by poor diction. English is quite difficult to sing in a way that the audience can comprehend but the other three singers succeeded admirably. Unfortunately Ms. Meyerson’s acting was way over the top and not in line with the mood of the piece. Baritone Robert Balonek made a fine appearance as Jess but we never figured out if he was Sue’s uncle or brother. That’s what happens when one can’t understand the words.
The chamber orchestra comprised nine strings, harp, four winds and a wonderful percussionist (Charles Kiger) led by the excellent conductor Richard Cordova, who brought out all the nuances of Floyd's instrumental writing. The chamber arrangement by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig worked well, even without a clarinet. The winds were particularly evocative over a carpet of sound laid down by the strings. The orchestra nearly stole the show since Floyd’s vocal lines struck our ears as being less than melodic.
The direction by Philip Shneidman was effective and Neil Patel’s simple set (lit by Nick Solyom) evoked an impoverished rural farm in the South. Lara De Bruin's frumpy costumes were right on target. The same excellent team was responsible for the more dramatically interesting Markheim which Floyd adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story in 1966. It is a gothic tale taking place at Christmastime in 1880 in a pawnshop. This gave Patel and De Bruin an opportunity to show their stuff. The set looked exactly the way one would expect and the Victorian costumes were superb.
The singing was excellent all around. Tenor Brent Reilly Turner created a very disagreeable pawnbroker of the Ebenezer Scrooge ilk. His ringing sound lent weight to the role as he toyed with his client, the reprobate aristocrat Markheim who has squandered his family fortune by gambling and is under the gun to repay some cutthroats. He is guilty of theft, seduction and abandonment, blackmail and extortion—another thoroughly unlikable character. But oh, what a fine baritone has Tyler Putnam whom we well remember from last summer at the Santa Fe Opera! Both men’s acting was convincing.
It came as no great shock when Markheim strangled the pawnbroker who refuses to lend him money on a stolen work of art. Enter….The Stranger! This character, excellently portrayed by tenor Matthew Tuell, might be the devil and he might be a hallucination but he tries to provoke the eponymous anti-hero to murder Tess, the maid who is returning to the shop to retrieve a parcel. Soprano Angela Mannino has a lovely stage presence with voice to match and the only character about whom we could care. We were quite relieved when Markheim decided to spare her life and asked her to call the police. This is evidence for the dramatic success of the story.
The work was bookended by a quartet of carolers comprising Ms. Castells, Ms. Meyerson, Mr. Kaneklides and Mr. Balonek, all from the curtain-raiser. The overall quality of the production suited us more than the material. But that’s just a consequence of our 19th c. Italian ears.
(c) meche kroop
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