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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Opera Review: The Psychic Fiends' Network

Séance on a Wet Afternoon bows at City Opera
Lauren Flanigan (seated) and Michael Kepler Meo
in a scene from Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 The New York City Opera.

The business of psychics, mediums and other forms of for-profit communication with the spirit world often involved trickery. Magnets under tables. Hidden switches to trigger vibrations or unearthly sounds. Or someone in the next room moaning into a tube, a popular, and low-tech device which originated on the operatic stage.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the compelling new opera by Stephen Schwartz (which arrives at the New York City Opera this week) needs no such chicanery. Its central special effect is the spectacular performance of Lauren Flanigan as Myra Foster, a San Francisco medium whose decision to kidnap a little girl in order to help her business has disastrous, and ultimately tragic consequences.

Myra Foster is a plum role, a fully-realized, deeply flawed heroine who is struggling to balance the kidnap victim, her failing business as a medium, a hapless husband, and what may or may not be the spirit of her dead son. This is a rich, complex portrayal that travels from parlor confidence tricks to the deep, dark end of the operatic spectrum. She is a monstrous figure, but one portrayed with great affection by Mr. Schwartz and total commitment from Ms. Flanigan.

Ms. Flanigan has served as the City Opera's flagship soprano for the past two decades. Her voice (best described as a dramatic spinto) has plenty of power for the big moments in Mr. Schwartz' score, but is capable of crooning lullabies to her kidnap victim, and controlling her husband Bill. As the cops close in and Ms. Foster finds herself in hot water, her performance builds in intensity. The conclusion is set with a kind of Wagnerian redemption: not a happy ending but one that packs dramatic punch.

In an opera centered around a child kidnapping, the victim in question becomes the second lead. Ms. Bailey Grey brought considerable talent to the role of Adriana, the terrified child being kept sedated in the Fosters' Victorian house, locked in what she's told is a "hospital" room. Finally, the boy treble Michael Kepler Meo gave a creepy performance as Arthur. His haunting presence evoked another operatic ghost story: Benjamin Britten's setting of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

The City Opera has assembled an excellent cast. Kim Josephson, a singer new to the company, is by turns pathetic and powerful as Bill, caught in his wife's web of kidnapping and deceit. The aptly named Melody Moore, paired middleweight tenor Todd Wylander drew sympathy as the mother and father whose daughter is kidnapped. Bass-baritone Philip Boykin is a rising talent: the gruff cop who is smarter than his hat size indicates.

This is the first operatic effort from Mr. Schwartz, who is known for his work on Broadway, having Godspell, Pippin and Wicked on his c.v. He is working in a much richer, darker musical idiom here, with soaring show-tune type melodies contrasted with rich orchestral backgrounds and carefully chosen tonalities that recalled the post-Romantic film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Mr. Schwartz has not sacrificed his ability to write a memorable melody on some obscure altar of high-minded operatic art. However, his sweet tunes develop into poisonous flowers of sound, acquiring new, and sinister meaning as the story hurtles toward the inevitable. If more modern American operas sounded like Séance, there would be less hand-wringing about the art form dying out.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.