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In performance: "Songspiel"

Web-only review: Songspiel at Georgetown.

Since I’ve talked about opera companies doing less with more, it would be ungallant of me not to praise American Opera Theater, which certainly keeps an adventurous spirit and an eye on the drama of opera. Its latest production, "Songspiel" (which came to Georgetown this past weekend) even featured a genuine diva, Sylvia McNair, a multiple Grammy Award winner and former Met diva who gamely explored her less glamorous side playing a homeless street person with a cabaret singer's pipes. Lots of ideas course through an AOT production, and not all of them take, but there was a lot to like in "Songspiel," specifically in the way the director and founder of the troupe, Timothy Nelson, found to tell a story.
(read more after the jump)

"Songspiel" is a conglomerate of songs by Kurt Weill, assembled into a quasi-dramatic narrative outlining a homeless woman's life in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina: she fell for the wrong man ("Surabaya Johnny"), became an prostitute ("Alabama Song"), was saved by passing missionaries and fell for the right man ("My Ship") who then was killed ("Dirge for a Soldier"), and so on. Told thus, it sounds a bit heavy-handed, and it does threaten to skew in that direction, but the narrative touch is actually fairly deft: Nelson moves the story along with implications rather than too much obvious spelling out.

And he had a number of inventive ideas. After McNair's first entrance, so unglamorous as to be self-conscious -- shuffling in untied tennis shoes and a shapeless overcoat and knit hat -- she sits on the ground in a filthy bus shelter and props up a Please Help sign, only to reveal other hand-lettered signs bearing the lyrics to the first song, "Youkali" (sung by the versatile though vocally limited Rebecca Duren). This creative presentation of supertitles (utilized again in the final number, "Complainte de la Seine") made the song's vision of foreign climes into a kind of fever dream on the part of the characters. Later, a figure in a sweatshirt slouched in, looking like a local, watched the proceedings, and then held a mike to his lips and began creating a one-man percussion section through vocal effects (a technique known as beatboxing): it was a virtuoso performer named Shodekeh, whose contribution linked the music to the present day in a smart and credible way, no more intrusively than an actual percussionist would have been in an instrumental ensemble comprised of trumpet, bass and piano.

The main story could be McNair, a former opera singer in the process of reinventing herself for a second act (she is preparing her one-woman cabaret show called "Subject to Change"). She, like "Songspiel" as a whole, showed promise, and sometimes excellence. She certainly had far more vocal presence than her two colleagues on stage, the pale baritone Todd Wieczorek and the gutsy Duren (who played everything from a prostitute to a chanteuse to a missionary in her various supporting roles). Compared to them, in fact, McNair was a paragon of color and vocal drama. But though she threw herself into her songs and showed an admirable lower register, her upper notes lacked some of the pizazz one expected. Part of the problem was the decision to amplify the singers, inexplicable in such a small space; all three of them seemed to respond to their body mikes by failing to support their voices, reining in the potential vocal power to a mere croon. The instrumental ensemble, led by Eileen Cornett, was terrific.

All in all, it was an inventive show with a star worth hearing, and another demonstration that American Opera Theater is a valuable presence in the region. The work of theirs I've seen has been uneven, but there is no denying their admirable and unorthodox spirit of creativity. "Songspiel" is the most successful of their endeavors I've seen to date, and its innovation alone is something to treasure in a field that tends to be far too traditional.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 19, 2010; 6:09 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Here are my impressions of the week-end concerts that I have attended. I was among the disappointed (few?) when the Philadelphia Orchestra substituted Beethoven's Pastoral for Martinu's 3rd Symphony when conductor Jiri Belohlavek was forced to cancel. These would have been the first performances by the orchestra of the score, the only Martinu symphony which it never performed. But I heard those seating next to me saying that they did like the program change. Well, you can't please everybody.

In any event, I tried to make the best of what I had and simply enjoyed the playing of the orchestra, which is in terrific shape (generally speaking.) If there is one sour point, is that it confirmed once more that Jennifer Montone was a poor choice by Christoph Eschenbach for the position of principla hornist. Her intonation was watery, and a far cry for the firmer and more secure Jeffrey Lang, who played in the opening work, the Adagio from Mahler's 10th. Hopefully Eschenbach's appointments in Washington are better - and to be fair, some of his Philadelphia appointments were terrific as well, Carol Jantsch for example.

Not much to say about Juanjo Mena's conducting. It wasn't bad at all - some slow tempi in the Pastoral excepting, but then this guy didn't study with Celibidache for nothing, ha, ha! - but I didn't come out of the auditorium remembering some particular strong insights. I was however pleased that I heard a great orchestra at its near best. (BTW, speaking of Celi, his Pastoral is IMO his best performance of a Beethoven symphony from his Munich years; I am generally not too fond of his Beethoven readings.)

Last but not least, Karita Mattila in, what else, Strauss' Four Last Songs. She may have been in better voice than what she was in Washington, but I didn't feel that the Verizon Hall is too voice-friendly. In any case, the voice did not project as easily as at the Met, and she was not once covered by the orchestra. I didn't feel that the interpretation changed sgnificantly from what we heard in Washington a few months ago.

On Sunday, the Vienna Philharmonic presented at Carnegie Hall a program more adventurous than what it usuallly gives on tours: Schoenberg (Five Pieces for Orchestra), Boulez (Notations no. I, II, III, IV and VII) and, to sweeten the deal, Beethoven's 5th to end the concert. This meant that some seats were empty, not many, but usually VPO concerts are full to the brim. Anyway, it was the first part that provided the memorable music making. The colors palette, especially in the Boulez score, was remarcable, and it was clearly thanks to both the orchestra and Barenboim. Pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately the performance of Beethoven's fifth was routine: cold, distant, and uninvolved. When one presents such a chestnut, there are two ways to do it: either bring out something new (which is rare) or play it as if your life depends on it. This edge-of-the-seat quality is what I missed mostly.

Of course, this was VPO routine, so it still counted for something: the warm strings, the bronzed horns were wonderful. On the debt side, the woodwing playing, especially the oboe was weak - solos were wonderful though, but the tutti were weak. And do I miss Roland Altmann as the timpanist!!! But the orchestra has done better elsewhere: their live recording with Klemperer at the helm is one of my favorites of the piece (the other two are Furtwängler's war time reading and - surprise! - Klaus Tennstedt with the Kiel Philarmonic - talk about edge-of-the-seat!; Furti and Tennstedt are also live.)

For those who care: Rainer Honeck was the concertmaster and Volkhard Steude was seating next to him. There were a number of women: a flautist, a percussionist, three harpists (one of them was Charlotte Balzereit, the other two substitues), quite a few string players, especially in the viola compartment. But concertmaster-in-trial Albena Danailova was not among those present.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | January 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the last time the New York City Opera was featured on PBS’s national “Great Performances” performing arts series about a decade ago, it showcased three one-act American Operas by Deborah Drattell, Michael Torke, and Robert Beaser (with respective librettos by Wendy Wasserstein, A. R. Gurney, and Terrence McNally.) I recall that the first opera of the trilogy was about a homeless women in New York City’s Central Park. Here is a bit of information from Project Muse:

I see that the Wikipedia list of the 33 or more American operas given their world premieres at the New York City Opera over the past 60 years does not include these three operas. I hope that they will be added. I also see that Leroy Jenkin’s “Mother Of Three Sons” is also missing from the Wikipedia list. I wonder if there is a more complete listing available on-line, or in print.


Thank you, cicciofrancolando, for the two well written orchestral reviews.

I very much would have liked to have heard the juxtaposition of Schoenberg’s and Boulez’s “Five Pieces,” as performed by the Vienna Philharmonic.

I also find it interesting that the New York Phil, as you know, performed Berg’s “Three Pieces” last week in NYC, and this week in Europe. (According to American composer and musicologist George Perle [who passed away one year ago at 93], Berg considered his "Three Pieces" as studies toward his opera "Wozzeck".)

I look forward to the NY Phil world premiere, next month under Alan Gilbert, of Christopher Rouse’s Odna Zhizn (A Life), which is reported to be cast in one movement in three parts.

Some readers here will remember that Mr Rouse was Musical America’s 2009 Composer of the Year. Perhaps the Washington Opera will commission an opera from him with funds from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 20, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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