The Aesthete's World, Amplified
The New York Sun - 12/09/05 by Fred Kirshnit ~
When W.S. Gilbert conceived of the role of Reginald Bunthorne for the opera "Patience," he envisioned him as a caricature of various contemporary aesthetes and Pre-Raphaelite types. The original 1881 production portrayed the dandy primarily as James MacNeil Whistler, while the second banana on the stage, Archibald Grosvenor, exhibited more of the recognizable personality traits of Oscar Wilde.
Once the show reached New York, where Wilde attended a performance, Bunthorne had, for all intents and purposes, become a direct and somewhat vicious parody of him. A born showman, Wilde knew enough to keep mum about the insult, subscribing to the theory that all publicity was good publicity. Wilde has since been mythologized as the prototypical aesthete, and "Patience" is now all about him.
I have written in these pages before how well the New York City Opera performs lighter fare. The company has the savvy to import stars from the musical-comedy stage rather than relying on the heavier-voiced denizens of the opera world. Last season, for both "Candide" and "Cinderella," they far outdistanced rival productions by keeping the patter light and loose, never treating the music as a holy relic. Someone at City Opera really gets it: Ultimately operetta exists not to edify but to entertain.
There is, however, a downside to this populist approach. In order to make the Broadway style of performer heard at the acoustically challenged New York State Theater, the powers that be have determined - wrongly, I think - that the participants' audibility must be heavily aided by technological means. The profligate use of body microphones - which, if used judiciously, could help one or two of the weaker individuals - has led to an artificiality of sound that is never desirable.
In "Patience," we had to suffer the bad with the good Saturday night. Michael Ball, who gained fame as Raoul in the London production of "Phantom of the Opera," and is here to star in "The Woman in White," made for a delightful Bunthorne, playing his petulance for all that it was worth. He certainly has the accent right and can move about beautifully, exhibiting a professional sense of timing that was not often reciprocated by this wooden cast.
But Mr. Ball was so heavily wired that I was surprised his flowing long hair did not stand on end. I suspect he possesses a pleasant singing voice, but there is simply no way to know for sure, since we had to endure his warblings through a filter of such massive interference. I winced just a little every time he broke into song, and his best scenes were those wherein he spoke his lines.
One of the best qualities of City Opera as a whole is its ability to foster local talent, but they were not well coached on this night. Everyone in the performance except Mr. Ball was American, and the accents were all over the map. If you are going to do a Gilbert and Sullivan about class and social position, with lines like "that's so South Kensington," then you jolly well ought to have some sense of proper ways of speaking. Also, G &S requires singers who can enunciate clearly, especially in the alliterative fast sections - just think of the phrase "the very model of a modern major general" and you will know the type of tongue twister of which I speak. In this production, the words came trippingly off of the tongue and fell flat on the floor.
Trying to cut through the amplified haze to evaluate the singers was difficult indeed, but it was strikingly obvious that the best of the lot was bass Kevin Burdette as Grosvenor. His instrument is rich and polished, especially smooth in the lower register (though I don't know about his natural volume level, of course).Timothy Nolen, on the other hand, was woefully deficient as Colonel Calverley, swallowing most of his phrase endings and making the best case of all for supertitles at an opera in English.
As for the women, contralto Myrna Paris stood out as Lady Jane, her voice arresting and her stage presence confident. I was pleased to read that she will be in two upcoming City Opera productions, "The Mines of Sulphur" and "Lysistrata." Tonna Miller, as the title character, seemed to be doing Liza Doolittle, and not very well at that. Her high notes were consistently off, her run-ups to them unintentionally melismatic, her cutesy-poo acting an irritation. I lost patience with her almost immediately.
The show as a whole was stiff and disorganized. The direction of Tazewell Thompson left us watching chorus members bumping into each other and bunching up whenever they moved as a body. There were some nice touches by individual thespians, but this is primarily an ensemble piece, and the two big groups - the women, known as the 20 lovesick maidens, and the men, the dragoon guards - could hardly occupy the same stage. The costumes of Merrily Murray-Walsh were interesting and appropriately colorful and Mr. Ball used his fur-collared cape to great effect. The small orchestra under Gary Thor Wedow was another bright spot.
The best aspect of the evening was that it called to mind good Oscar Wilde stories. When Gilbert finally met the great aesthete at a dinner party long after the premiere of "Patience," he complained about his loquaciousness. Wilde responded that he "could deny myself the pleasure of talking, but not to others the pleasure of listening."
'Patience' will be performed again September 15, 17, 23, 27 & 30, and October 2 & 5 (Lincoln Center, 212-870-5570).