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18.8.05

Summer Opera: Blitzstein's Regina at Bard

Other Reviews:

David Noh, Regina Rocks Hudson Valley (Gay City News, August 11)

David Patrick Stearns, Bard festival skillfully revives Blitzstein's 'Regina' (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2)

Kyle Gann, Regina, Briefly Out of the Closet (PostClassic, August 1)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Regina at Bard SummerScape (Playbill Arts, July 31)
The first and only time I have heard an excerpt from Marc Blitzstein's opera Regina was at the American opera scenes recital at the Renwick Gallery last year (American Opera at the Renwick Gallery, October 11, 2004). So, I noted with great interest (Opera in the Summer 2005, June 2) the full production planned for this summer at Bard SummerScape (July 29 to August 6), and judging by the number of reviews I have read, most people in the press were interested, too. Michael Feingold went out to Bard to review it (Southern Discomfort, August 9) for The Village Voice:
The quintessence of the indeterminate form that, for want of a better word, we call "Broadway opera," Regina is as hard to produce as it is to place artistically. You need an opera house orchestra at ease with jazz rhythms and sensitive enough to play sympathetically under dialogue sequences. The cast has to answer operatic demands musically, project difficult words with immaculate diction, and act convincingly enough to get through at least the equivalent of an adequate summer stock performance of The Little Foxes. And the director has to be able to shape these forces — always assuming the conductor's cooperation — into a performance that will not only hold the crazy-quilt work together, but will give some sense of its social and moral, as well as its musical and theatrical, resonance. For The Little Foxes is not simply a wicked-woman melodrama; it is about the rise of industrial capitalism in the agrarian South, about indeterminacies of race and class after the Civil War, about a robber baron era in American politics with painful similarities to our own. The play's alliance of "Hubbard Sons and Marshall" (Regina's crooked brothers and the Northern cotton buyer they team with) is the ancestry of today's Republican party. Decidedly, Regina is not a task for the fainthearted.
He calls the production "a brave one, starting with the choice of work," Leon Botstein's conducting "powerful, though sometimes aggressively rowdy or hurried, and installation artist Judy Pfaff's contribution a "dreadful abstract set, which ingeniously managed to obstruct movement without conveying any atmosphere." Another reviewer, Anne Midgette (That Frightening Regina, Her Breeding and Rage, August 1) writing for the New York Times, disagrees about Pfaff's set, which actually sounded quite interesting:
The staircase was a silver helix spiraling up from the earth to balance the first story and continuing on to evoke a phantom upper floor. It was a structure at once complex and crystal clear, refined and vernacular, and thus mirrored the piece it was made to serve. Created by the installation artist Judy Pfaff, it was the focus of her set for the production of Marc Blitzstein's opera "Regina" that opened Friday night at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College as part of the Summerscape festival. In fact the staircase said it all: this "Regina" was spare, elegant and classy. Which is no small feat, because "Regina" is hardly a streamlined opera: there's lots of plot and lots of text (here delivered largely comprehensibly, without supertitles, to the credit of the generally respectable cast). It's based on Lillian Hellman's play "The Little Foxes" (known to many through the film with Bette Davis), and Blitzstein sought to fuse various strains of the American vernacular in a conglomerate score that's studded with set pieces, now lush, now bristling, now tinged with jazz and complete with singing and dancing African-Americans. These minstrel-show elements date the work, which had its first performance in 1949; what the composer intended as a gesture of emancipation now reads as rather the opposite. Still, the production showed why they should be included, uncomfortable though they be, in part because of the exuberant music and in part because of the composer's sense of dramatic pacing (which this complete version showed to have been quite sound).
Most of the reviews I read have praised Lauren Flanigan's work in the title role, and some gave kudos to tenor Jason Collins, a singer from South Carolina who clearly understood the southern nature of his character, Leo. Will someone please release a CD of this work? The old Decca/Polygram recording with Samuel Ramey et al. is out of print and hard to find. Fortunately for me, there is a copy at my local library. The "Rain Quartet," which I heard at that recital last year, is really a catchy piece of music.

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