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theatre reviews

Volume 15/Issue 22

Trodding the Boards.GIF


Il Trovatore

The New Orleans Opera Association began its 54th season with a conservative, but musically exciting, staging of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece of a revenge opera, Il Trovatore.

Set in fifteenth century Spain during a civil war, and based on a play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, this is a real pot-boiler of revenge and mistaken identity that serves as an armature upon which Maestro Verdi hung some of his most exciting music. The quartet of stars obtained for this production were Russian mezzo Irina Mishura as the gypsy Azucena (purported to be Verdi's favorite character), with the indomitable, if zaftig, local favorite soprano Ruth Falcon as the ingenue Leonora, the burly baritone Yalun Zhang as Count Di Luna, and the small, if rotund, tenor Eduardo Villa as Manrico, the troubador of the title. What these four lacked in visual delineation of their respective characters they more than made up for with consummate vocal acumen, if not in the first part, most definitely in the second, in which their most exciting and difficult musical assignments reside.

Many years before, Azucena had avenged her mother's immolation at the hands of Count Di Luna's father by burning alive his son, but she burned her own son by mistake and so kidnapped Di Luna's son and made him her own, calling him Manrico. He becomes the troubador of the title, whose mellifluous voice so intrigues the lady-in-waiting Leonora, that she falls in love with him even though she is being wooed by the Count Di Luna (who seeks revenge on the death of his brother at the hands of the gypsy). He finds out that Manrico is the gypsy's son (although he is really the count's brother) and captures both Manrico and Azucena and condemns them to death. Leonora succeeds in getting him to release Manrico by promising to marry him, but she secretly takes poison. Manrico will not leave without her and so is executed; Leonora dies. Azucena finally has her revenge to telling Di Luna that he has just killed his own brother. This nonesense is made palpably clear and utterly heartwrenching by Verdi's imcomparable score.

All four principals stopped the opera at various times, with Irina Mishura doing it twice, both in her opening aria ("Stride la vampa") and her prison cell aria ("Ai nostri monti"). Likewise, the velvet baritone of Yalun Zhang thrilled the packed house, especially in the aria "Il balen del suo," while Eduardo Villa's Manrico pulled out all the stops, finally, in the Act III, Scene 2 aria "Di quella pira," which ends with two high Cs, both of which he hit (the second barely). Ms. Falcon's Leonora was most effective, and most warmed up, for her final aria, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," although her lower register lacked volume.

The opera was made manifest not only by these boffo performances, under the careful, if conservative, direction by David Morelock, but also by the sensitive yet driving force of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra under the astute direction of conductor Semyon Vekshtein and the angelic choral work by chorus master Carol Raush. Others in lesser roles who also comported themselves with musical and theatrical acumen were Gerald Stroup as Ruiz, Mark S. Doss as Ferrando and Loir Bade as Inez.

The production's setting and lighting by David Gano filled the Theatre of the Performing Arts stage with a veritable mountain of masonic detail-massive stone walls, flying buttresses, arches, enormous crudely hewn beams. Lovely.

Composing Tchaikovsky

Laura Edmonston, a PHD candidate at the University of Texas, drawing from letters and memoirs, has penned a most admirable, if flawed, play (neither pedantic nor epistolary) now lighting up the boards of the Lupin Theatre at Tulane University, through Oct. 26.

Composing Tchaikovsky is a play about the deviancy of the Russian musical genius, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky-his homosexuality-and how it affected two women who figured prominently in his life: his wife of three months, Antonina Ivanovna (Alice Johnson) and his benefactress, Nadezhda Filaretovna, (Heather Hollingsworth) who gave him 6,000 rubles a year for years and years in return for which all she asked was that he answer her daily letters, which he did faithfully for many years until finally dropping her. They never met.

Although these women also did not meet in real life, playwright Edmonston has put them onstage and imagined all kinds of inventive situations in which they interact with a vengence, creating a fascinating conflict where none actually existed and in the process illuminating their opposing characters in a most thrillingly theatrical way, jumping back and forth in time.

Director Lisa Jo Epstein and designer Judith McWhorter have configured the malleable Lupin Theatre into a one-sided affair with the audience on one side and concert seats on the other, which are occupied by dandies of the period (who also serve as various characters). The play is then presented presentational style, as a kind of concert within a concert, as though we are watching a concert conducted by Tchaikovsky ( who never appears), thus interpolating bits of his music into the play as a means of illuminating the feelings of the twin protagonists.

Epstein has directed this play with inventiveness and style, evincing notable performances from her adept, if callow, cast. Indeed, the two leads, Johnson and Hollingsworth, are excellent-Hollingsworth, clad in black, occupying stage right; Johnson in the white uniform of a madhouse inmate. She was supposedly driven to madness by the lack of attention or affection from the pederastic Tchaikovsky and suffers from nymphomania. This is the meatier role and she sinks her theatrical teeth into it with Julie Harris-like voraciousness. Her's is the earthier and more humorous of the two roles; yet, Hollingsworth' character is the more intriguing.

And herein lies the flaw-who is the protagonist of this play? Perhaps in later drafts the playwright might focus more on this character and her bizarre relationships....

Scott Gustavson, stepping from the concert "audience" becomes Antonina's straitlaced, though kindly, doctor; Isaac Gustavson becomes the doctor who treated Antonina's broken leg and the suitor of Jennifer Bennett's Milochka, Nadezhda's marriageable daughter, whom he marries. Leslie Gastineau's Sonia becomes a lesbian inmate in the asylum who shows Antonina the only affection she enjoys in her otherwise demented life. Ryan Flaherty becomes Tchaikovsky's brother Modeste and Brandon Voss, Alexander, a waltzing partner to the imperious Nadezhda.

Designer McWhorter's setting boasts a number of China silk backdrops, lusciously painted, that float to the ground. All her set pieces work magically and are most professionally polished, as is her evermoving, mood enhancing lighting, while Kirche L. Zeile's costumes are correct and finely detailed.

I have no idea in what condition the Epstein script was at the beginning of the rehearsal process. I can only say that the end result, due to the expertise of the director and dramaturg, Megan Ostrander, is most compelling-illuminating, as it does, the play's lack of focus-exactly who is it about? Ms. Epstein has been well served by this production...I hope she keeps on composing.


The Rivertown Repertory Theatre will hold auditions for the musical comedy The Amorous Flea, book by Jerry Devine, music and lyrics by Bruce Montgomery and based on Moliere's School For Wives, Sun., Nov. 26, 6pm and Mon., Nov. 17, 7pm. Director Elliott Keener is interested in seeing actors, actresses and singers, between the ages of 18 to 60, who move well A piano accompanist will be present. The play will be presented Jan. 15-Feb. 8, 1998.

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