We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, April 28, 2017


Christopher Fitzgerald and Lauren Worsham (photo by Erin Baiano)

What a coinkydink to have Victor Herbert in our  musical life two nights in a row! I was wondering whether the decision of MasterVoices to tackle this work was in any way affected by the success of Alyce Mott’s three-year-old Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!  What MasterVoices attempted was very similar to what Ms. Mott does. There was an ambitious rewriting and adapting of the libretto to make sense to a 21st c. audience.

With Ted Sperling as Conductor and Director, last night’s production of Herbert’s unwieldy 1903 Babes in Toyland at Carnegie Hall was a huge buffet of musical and dramatic delicacies. Whether you left elated or disappointed was largely determined by your tastes and appetites. If you came for Herbert’s music, you would have been thrilled by the massive Orchestra of St.Luke’s and the marvelous choristers of MasterVoices, formerly known as The Collegiate Chorale).

If you came for fun, there were plenty of sight gags by the talented cast. Bill Irwin with his rubber body and keen instinct for humor nearly stole the show as The Toymaker who hates children and wants to destroy them with dangerously evil toys. Evil characters are ever so much fun and the lecherous Uncle Barnaby (Jonathan Freeman) tries to get rid of his adorable niece Jane and nephew Alan (the adorable Lauren Worsham and the equally adorable Christopher Fitzgerald) to get their inheritance.

In this he is aided and abetted by two henchmen—Roderigo (Jeffrey Schecter) and Gonzorgo (Chris Sullivan), neither of whom is adorable, but both of whom are very funny.

Jane is beloved by Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Jay Armstrong Johnson) who dances as well as he sings, and Alan has romantic designs on pert Contrary Mary (the wonderful Kelli O’Hara) who must cleverly outwit Uncle Barnaby.

Tom’s mother The Widow Piper was portrayed by the fine Nina Hennesy.

The bizarre plot of the 1903 production involved a shipwreck and a volcano but we were urged by the narrator to use our imagination. Indeed, Herbert’s superlative orchestral writing evoked a mighty storm in the orchestra. We confess to being entranced by the percussionist who played the kettle drums, usually hidden in the back of the orchestra— but here, right in front for our visual delight. Herbert’s evocation of sunrise rivaled Beethoven’s depiction of moonlight in his appropriately named Moonlight Sonata.

Now here comes the less tasty part of the buffet. Both orchestra and chorus were onstage, not in the pit. For much of the performance, the clever words of the dialogue and lyrics were drowned out. Narrator Blair Brown, who had some apparently clever tongue-in-cheek comments, suffered the most. We cannot deny that there were some folks in the audience who did succeed in understanding the jokes because we heard laughter. We thought we were losing our hearing until we convened with other people in various parts of Carnegie Hall who shared our difficulty.

Glen McDonough’s original book and libretto created a spectacle of visual effects and music hall type numbers, many of which had nothing to do with the inconsequential and convoluted plot. It lasted four hours and audiences loved it! Last night’s production was trimmed to a bit over two hours an was adapted by Joe Keenan and Ted Sperling with script and some additional lyrics by Joe Keenan. There was something about Trump in the number “If I Were a Man Like That” which we could not hear enough to understand. We would have wished to have heard it.

The voices were amplified and the singers were on the book. We sense that part of the incomprehensibility was related to the situation of narrators and singers moving their heads to look down at the score and up at the audience, thereby not always getting consistent amplification.

The problem could have been ameliorated by the use of titles. We desperately wanted to get the jokes and felt alienated when we couldn’t hear them. Still, it was pleasure enough to listen to Herbert’s infectious music. Although the most famous numbers from the show are “Toyland” and “March of the Toys”, we had our own favorites: Tom’s song “Never Mind, Bo-Peep, We Will Find Your Sheep” , Jane’s song “Can’t Do the Sum”, Alan’s song “Song of the Poet” (in which Mr. Fitzgerald succeeded in making the words clear!), and the clever duet about marriage “Before and After”, sung by Ms. O’Hara and Mr. Fitzgerald.

All in all, a worthwhile evening that offered much but could have been better.

(c) meche kroop

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