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Friday, December 12, 2014

Opera Review: Pocket Operas, Full of Riches

The Little Opera Theater of New York mounts two by Carlisle Floyd
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Waif at the door: Angela Mannino (left) Matthew Tuell (center) and Taylor  Putnam
in the title role in a tense moment from Markheim. 
Photo by Tina Buckman © 2014 The Little Opera Theater of New York.
Opera as an American art form has always been a tricky business. Although some works have found success on the limited stage, few composers from this country have achieved steady success in the art of music drama. One such exception is Carlisle Floyd. In a career spanning half a century and more, Mr. Floyd has written multiple masterworks, including Susannah (year) and Of Mice and Men. This week, the Little Opera Theater of New York explored two one-act operas by this composer in an engaging double bill, at the 59E59 Theaters.

Although each opera is one act, they are otherwise very different. Slow Dusk (1949) is Mr. Floyd's first opera, a paean to the hot rural summers of his native South Carolina. The story, a family feud that plays out on a searing-hot day in the marsh country of that state, concerns two rival families, and the death of a young girl's fiancée. The second work is Markheim (1966). This is a grim, wintry little shocker, set amidst the bustle of London at Christmastime, and based on an 1884 story by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Each work was presented in a new chamber orchestration by Raymond J. Lustig and Inessa Zaretsky.)


Slow Dusk featured a gradient change of mood from the idyllic major key to a dark minor as the sun sets and the drama progressed. Under the baton of Richard Cordova, the taut orchestra (arranged on either side of the central acting surface with Mr. Cordova's score on the stage itself) delved into the textures of Mr. Floyd's orchestration, a score that points the way forward to Susannah. The effect was minimal and hypnotic, the shifts gradual as a sense of foreboding slid itself into the score in anticipation of the denouement.

Thursday night's performance featured a stunning character turn from mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson as the meddling Aunt Sue, whose opposition to the impending marriage of Micah (John Kaneklides) and Sadie (Carolina Castells) provides the opera's simple plot. Her powerful performance dominated the opera, almost overpowering Mr. Cordova's ensemble. As night sets over the reeds, Sadie and Sue learn that Micah has drowned, an offstage death that recalls the tragic ending of Cavalleria Rusticana.

Markheim, written as a vehicle for the bass Norman Triegle,  is a much more sophisticated affair. For its first half, the opera is a two-hander, an epic confrontation on Christmas Eve between the title character (bass Tyler Putnam) and Josiah Creach (Brent Reilly Turner) a miserly, Scrooge-like shopkeeper with echoes of Wagner's Mime. As the music unfolded (a ticking clock for Creach and and altogether more sweeping and romantic scoring for Markheim) the true nature of each man rose to the surface. The contrast between Mr. Putnam's flexible yet formidable bass and the high character tenor of Mr. Turner made for compelling listening, drawing the audience into the depths of the characters and their essential conflict.

Things exploded when Markheim, torn by desparation and Creach's taunts, struggled with and finally strangled the shopkeeper. At that point the drama turned with the arrival of the Stranger, a Mephistophelean figure in dapper coat and top hat, sung by tenor Matthew Tuell. Mr. Tuell made the most of the Stranger's smooth, insinuating lines, promising Markheim a life of riches and ease if he just gives up the idea of remorse. In the work's second climax, this devilish figure (is he supernatural, is he Markheim's animus?) urges Markheim to kill Creach's innocent servant girl Tess (soprano Angela Mannino.) The hero finds redemption as he calls for the police instead.

This is a powerful hour-long opera, helped by stark orchestration and clever use of trope. Verdi's Miserere shows up in one key sequence, and the repeated use of clocks for guilt suggest Boris Godounov. Floyd also emphasizes the work's seasonal nature by bracketing the action with a quartet of carolers (played by the cast of Slow Dusk.) In a month loaded with performances of Handel's Messiah and other  standard fare, this excellent, outside-the-box opera proved that it has the real holiday spirit.

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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.