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.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Elizabeth Bouk, Jeremy Hirsch, and Scott Joiner in Gramercy Opera's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens wrote his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843 as a means of engaging his middle-class audience with his concern for the conditions of the poor in mid-Victorian England--a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The work has an optimistic bent in that Scrooge (the superb Jeremy Hirsch), the main character, transforms himself from a cold and miserly misanthrope to a kind and generous man.

The means by which this is achieved is by confrontation with a series of ghosts--that of his former partner Marley (the effective Angky Budiardjono), the Ghost of Christmas Past (the lovely Eugenia Forteza), the Ghost of Christmas Present (the hilariously campy Tim Stoddard), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Petra Jarrar).

We see this device as the Victorian precursor to psychoanalysis. The best means of stimulating behavioral change is the process of examining childhood recollections and their effect on shaping the present character, and the subsequent examination of the consequences of unproductive behavior.

For the yearling Gramercy Opera, tackling this rich story was a major undertaking and the results were, for the most part, engaging and entertaining. What we appreciated the most was the creation of a Victorian atmosphere. For this production, the Montauk Club in Park Slope, Brooklyn was chosen and an excellent choice it was, redolent of the atmosphere of the 19th c.

The Production Designer Maria Torffield ensured that the characters were suitably costumed with hairstyling that appeared authentic. Lighting design by Lauren Libretti achieved a spooky Victorian mood but at the expense of audience comfort.  The room was dark save for some very bright spotlights that shone directly into our eyes.  Other seats may have escaped this discomfort.

The immersive nature of the production was also achieved at the expense of audience comfort.  The playing space was approximately 75 feet long with audience members seated on both sides of what became a long corridor. The Cratchit's dining room was at one end and Scrooge's bedroom was at the other end. The awkward effect was like that of attending a tennis match!

Additionally, dialogue became lost with some frequency. Of course, most of us are familiar with the story so it was no big deal to lose some of the dialogue.

The performances were excellent without exception. Jeremy Hirsch was a convincing Scrooge. We liked Nick Fitzer as the carefree nephew Fred and Marie Putko as Belle, the lovely young woman he had courted and lost in his youth because of his concern with money. Scott Joiner and Elizabeth Bouk were believable as the Cratchits, parents of a large family, poor but loving and happy. Peals of laughter greeted the campy performance of Tim Stoddard as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Comic relief is always welcome. This versatile artist was excellent as the serious Young Scrooge!

Readers may have observed that we have not described the genre to which this show belongs. Composer Felix Jarrar calls it a "ballad opera", analogous to the German Singspiel. There was spoken dialogue, most of which we could hear, and sung music as well.

We loved Mr. Jarrar's incredibly interesting instrumental music; he himself conducted and played the piano part with flutist Leia Slosberg, clarinetist Eric Umble, Violinist Danielle Turano, and cellist Thea Mesirow. We wished that we had had a better view of this chamber group. The textures and colors of the orchestration were brilliant.

We cannot approach the vocal writing with the same degree of enthusiasm. We find the same issue in almost all contemporary writing for voice--the vocal lines are just not interesting! Our ears are tuned to melody and we searched in vain for one. (We did love the arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".)

Part of the problem can be attributed to a prose libretto.  Although Dickens wordiness was avoided and key scenes were given the major focus, the text did not sing well. The brilliant director Brittany Goodwin wrote the libretto as a writing partner to Mr. Jarrar and they are working together on future productions.

We couldn't stop thinking that this story would make a swell Broadway musical with short punchy phrases and tuneful music. When we returned home we did some online research and were not surprised to learn that someone had thought of this in 1994! The show was called A Christmas Carol and played at the Paramount Theater every December until 2003. We are not Broadway fans but just reading the titles of the songs made us wish we'd seen it.

This story is a timely one in that our present day culture is obsessed with greed; it is a good thing to be reminded of the value of generosity towards those less fortunate. We wish our legislators had been there last night.

(c) meche kroop

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