Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spoofing the vanity of opera singers, 'Too Many Sopranos" takes the stage at Butler ArtsFest

For the self-obsessed diva of legend, the phrase "too many sopranos" translates to "two sopranos." The outsize egos of women (and men) gifted with extraordinary advantages in the vocal department have long been part of the international opera scene. Fandom has fed them. Just as President Trump likes to speak of "my military," a diva may well talk about "my Carmen," "my Traviata," etc. And she doesn't just mean how she does the leading role. She means the whole production.

Eddy and Macdonald: Icons made fun of in "Too Many Sopranos."
There is room for just one luminary at a time in the estimation of many stars — and their fans. The castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries attracted maniacal devotion. One aristocratic lady added to acclaim for one of them with the near-blasphemous shout: "One God, one Farinelli!"

The stories are legion. Richard Tucker upbraided a newspaper interviewer who claimed to be a big fan for insufficient representation of the tenor's discography in his record collection. "You are not a true Tucker fan," sniffed the feisty bantam from Brooklyn. And then there are the schedule-shattering star indispositions: a critic of my acquaintance once joked that he used to think "Teresa Stratas" was Greek for "to be announced."

"Too Many Sopranos" is an operatic confection shifting this interplay of egos to the hereafter. In Butler Opera Theatre's current production at the Schrott Center for the Arts, the student cast goes full bore into the caricature portrayals — particularly the sopranos I saw opening night Friday: Julia Gries as Dame Doleful, Whitney Cleveland as Miss Titmouse, Chloe Boelter as Madame Pompous and Andrea Tulipana as Just Jeanette.

With music by Edwin Penhorwood and libretto by Miki Lynn, "Too Many Sopranos" involves the divas' deal with St. Peter to recruit more men for the heavenly choir so that the ladies can each have the niche in paradise they so richly deserve. They are charged with going down to hell to rescue male singers, who tend to disproportionately end up below. To be successful, that effort will require one selfless act — a tall order for the egotistical divas. Laurel Goetzinger directs the show, drawing from her singers performances that do justice to both their voice types and the characters' individuality. James Caraher is the program's artistic and music director.

The rivalries made explicit in the first act seem to draw upon the pitched battle for pre-eminence between Madamoiselle Silberklang and Madame Herz in Mozart's "Impresario."  And in the second act, when a sweet romance that's blossomed between Just Jeanette and Nelson Deadly promises to fulfill the selfless-act requirement, they have to undergo a trial of their worthiness, like Tamino and Pamina in "The Magic Flute."

But "Too Many Sopranos" is borderline farce, and Nelson and Jeanette simply must stay awake for an hour while listening to
Did actors nod off when he spoke?: Orson Welles, director.
the droning instructions of Orson, a stage director whom Penhorwood and Lynn have probably assigned to hell to settle personal scores. The character names underline the satirical and cultural resonance of the show, particularly when photos of Orson Welles, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy are projected on the backdrop.

Tulipana's Jeanette is fully invested in the ingenue portrayal, with a certain sparkle in her facial expressions and both sincerity and clarity in her singing. The other divas are sometimes stunning in ensemble and occasionally so in solo passages as well. Cleveland tosses off the coloratura type with flashes of brilliance. Boelter, with very explicit costuming boosts, has the stateliness and ferocity of Brunnhilde. Gries projected the gloomy charisma of any number of tragic opera heroines. I did think, however, that when Dame Doleful sang of her signature "moaning and sighing," we could have had a touch of the estimable Joan Sutherland's moaningly blurred diction, but that's not an easy trait to imitate.

Alana Jones measured up in a crucial supporting role as the Sandman, and Sarah Miller was amusing as an off-pitch, eye-candy soprano warbling "Caro nome" from 'Rigoletto" into the ears of a long-suffering tenor, Enrico Carouser,  costumed as the Duke of Mantua, nicely portrayed by Benjamin Holbrook. Other men taking care of the comic business and singing well were Patrick Lord-Bemmert as a Mephistophelean bass envious of tenors, Malachi White in a flowery impersonation of an Eddyesque tenor, and Jeremiah Marcele Sanders as the commanding figure of St. Peter, a role also involving a large portion of spoken dialogue.

Sung text is projected in surtitles, which is helpful. The sets (by Bart Simpson)  for heaven and hell are neatly coordinated with Cathy Sipe's evocative lighting design.  Guy Clark's costumes flesh out the operatic and otherworldly visual cliches that are vital in putting across the amusing superficiality of the story and its satirical thrust.

The music, conducted with elan by Matthew Kraemer,  is voice-friendly and true to the operatic styles that "Too Many Sopranos" subjects to mockery.  The small orchestra supports the singers efficiently, with flecks of wittiness throughout. Penhorwood's music in the second act is excessively dependent on tango numbers, however, or maybe upon that Argentine dance's close relative, the habanera. Carmen, who sings the most famous habanera in opera, is spared the work's satire; there are apparently not too many mezzos in heaven. But then, one of the most flamboyant Carmens was the soprano Maria Callas.

Stereotypes have a nagging persistence about them. This show has a lot of fun with that perennial fact and its manifestations in the world of opera..