|Shane Brown, David Seatter, Keith Broughton, JoAnna Geffert,
Claire Leyden, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, and Thomas Woodman
There was much to enjoy in Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!'s production of the composer's 1914 one-act opera Madeleine. The talent onstage was excellent. The chamber orchestra played beautifully under the baton of Jestin Pieper. William Hicks' superb musicianship on the piano was augmented by violin, cello, bassoon, and harp. Alyce Mott's direction was on point, as usual.
Mr. Herbert's enormous contribution to the music theater canon is vast. He can be considered the source for American Musical Comedy. Few people know that he wrote two operas. After finishing the grand opera Natoma, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1911 (and was produced a century later by VHRPL!), he created Madeleine, with libretto adapted by Grant Stewart from a play by Decourcelles and Thibaut. Frankly, the words were dated and stilted, something one doesn't recognize when opera is sung in a foreign language.
Probably, the story was more charming in French. A highly narcissistic opera diva, much spoiled by suitors bearing gifts, is alone on New Year's Day. Every one of her suitors has declined her invitation to dine at her home because each one is dining with his mother. Even her maid has refused her. We guess that spending time with mama on New Year's Day was a French custom.
She throws a terrible tantrum and fires everyone. A visit from a good-natured childhood friend Didier restores her balance. Narcissists require a great deal of admiration and support, rarely considering the feelings of others. However, his invitation to dine with his humble family touches her. She considers the invitation but realizes what an intrusion it would be and stays home dining with a painting of her mother which Didier has restored.
It is evidence of the vocal and dramatic artistry of soprano Claire Leyden that we were able to care for this self-centered woman and to consider how narcissists act out their inner emptiness by manipulating and preying upon others.
As Didier we enjoyed the believable performance of baritone Jonathan Hare who has a lovely warm tonal quality. We remember well his charming portrayal of Figaro in Christman Opera Company's Il barbiere di Siviglia.
As the maid Nichette mezzo-soprano JoAnna Geffert created a lovely unselfish character to which she lent her finely textured instrument.
As the suitors we had three fine gentlemen--Andrew Klima, Keith Broughton, and Thomas Woodman--all of whom sang well and created interesting characters.
The servants were effectively portrayed by Shane Brown and David Seatter, who has appeared in every single VHRPL! performance.
The musical scholarship that went into reducing this work for such an unusual combination of instruments impressed us. William Hicks spent a year and a half performing what one could call a "labor of love". All of Herbert's music was preserved with the lines distributed among the instruments. This "experiment" parallels Herbert's experiment in writing opera, indeed a huge pushing of boundaries all around.
Critics in 1914 were not enthralled with the work and we would be inclined to agree. The story was fine and character driven, whereas Herbert's operettas were story driven. No problem there. The problem for us was the lack of tunes. What we have enjoyed of Herbert's operettas has been the luscious melodies and the set pieces of waltzes and marches as well as the chorus. None of that here!
In a lecture by Ms. Mott, we learned of the influences upon this opera by Debussy, Strauss, Wagner, and Puccini--all composers we like. But we were unable to discern the leitmotifs for each character. Possibly if one were to listen to the opera several times it might have become apparent.
There were some musical moments that made the evening worthwhile. To have heard Ms. Leyden sing "When I am Happy" made us happy. Her crystalline soprano opened to a ringing top. For Didier's aria about the pursuit of elusive happiness, Mr. Hare's performance was affecting. We heard a lonely bassoon when he left.
The conclusion moved us, with piano and harp mourning the loss of Madeleine's own mother, whose portrait would be her dinner companion.
In sum, it was a worthwhile project to undertake and a rare opportunity to experience a musical titan pushing his own boundaries. We wouldn't have missed it for the world. We are looking forward, however, to VHRPL!'s resumption of operetta with Mlle. Modiste on May 5th and 6th!
© meche kroop