Saturday, June 2, 2018

OTSL 'Regina' revives with spirit an underappreciated American opera

Oscar and Ben Hubbard pay attention to their sister, Regina.
The weight of the Southern past is palpable throughout Opera Theatre of St. Louis'  production of "Regina," the estimable yet somewhat obscure opera by Marc Blitzstein closely based upon "The Little Foxes," Lillian Hellman's corrosive drama of an Alabama family torn apart by greed and aggressiveness.

Allen Moyer's set is dominated by a huge, idyllic view of a plantation home, set in an ornate gilded frame and leaning against the back wall. It looks like a staid print, with the pale colors of aquatint. Associated with the genteel life at Lionnet, the engraving is addressed directly by the uprooted Southern belle Birdie Hubbard. She is unhappily married to Oscar Hubbard, the junior member of an unholy trio of ambitious siblings. Otherwise the image is largely ignored by the family, occasional visitors, and the household's domestic help. What's important now is mandated by Regina, who is married to the town banker Horace.

The New South is being born at the close of the 19th century, and the parturition is rather ugly. Everyone, even the good people, is caught up in Hubbard machinations designed to make Regina and her brothers quite rich. Their success so far has not been good enough for them; their respectability rests uneasily on the fears and resentment of the small town they dominate. That's the subject of one of the opera's several lively ensembles, as party guests express their jaundiced view of Hubbard  hospitality.

Blitzstein's eclectic score, which gives the whites galops and waltzes to dance to, takes in as well musical idioms from the black underclass, emphasizing  the social divide. From the start, the
novelty of ragtime mixes with the African-American spiritual heritage. In this production's sensitively designed Prologue, servants and an itinerant band led by a man who calls himself Jazz both resist and
welcome cultural novelty. Black Southerners are finding a way forward into the new  century as well, but must do it though coded adjustments to their inferior status.
Regina (Susan Graham) pauses on the fateful staircase.

The ruling class can be more blatant about changes they are helping to direct. When predation takes new forms, the unscrupulous have free rein until they fatally check one another. There's no room for dreaming over a mythical past. That's the arc of the Hubbards' story. It's significant that the outsized plantation image doesn't hang on the wall; it leans against it, as if it's about to be moved into an outbuilding and forgotten.

Venerated OTSL conductor Stephen Lord guided the music adeptly, with members of the St.  Louis  Symphony Orchestra in the pit. There is a plethora of underscoring to the spoken dialogue, which needs to be smoothly woven into "parlando" and "arioso" passages as well as fully formed solos and ensembles. The music is restless and evocative, and may seem to some listeners to lack a center. But the  illusion of a center, a cohesiveness that matches the turbulent action, is consistently
maintained in this production.

The family jockeys for power, revealing internal rifts that threaten to fragment it conclusively, from
the first act onward. A smooth-talking Chicago capitalist, William Marshall (mellifluously sung by Robert Stahley) is being courted by the Hubbards. Their contribution lacks only the approval of the dangerously ill Horace, who has been long away from home under treatment for a heart condition. Regina, authoritatively portrayed from the Prologue on by Susan Graham, must lure  him back while taking advantage of her brothers.

Graham led the way in mastery of the range of the leading roles' vocal demands. As single-minded a representation of nastiness as Regina is, the mezzo-soprano portraying her must move convincingly among sweet-talking charm, barking orders at the staff, antiheroic self-assertion fueled by resentments worthy of an Iago, and a desperate rage that in a third-act climax requires to her to tell
her husband she's just waiting for him to die, splitting the word between a brilliant high note  and a rasping shriek.

Birdie (Susanna Phillips) shares her fading dreams of happiness with Addie and Alexandra
Graham was equal to all these tasks. She carried  herself with statuesque imperiousness, though frighteningly subject to mood swings. It seemed entirely natural that during a tense exchange with her shrewd older brother Ben, given an equally seasoned authority by James Morris, she snatches his cigar away from him, drifts across the stage stroking it thoughtfully, then takes a few puffs on it.

The gesture was typical of James Robinson's insightful stage direction. A recurrent motif is to set the black characters in silhouetted poses as scenes get under way. We are reminded, as William
Faulkner said of his black characters, that "they endured." In the household tasks they carry out in detail during the Prologue, the housekeeper Addie (Melody Wilson) focuses on polishing the banister of a long staircase. At approximately that place on the stairs, Horace Giddens will long afterward suffer his fatal heart attack.

There is also something richly suggestive about Wilson's movement during Birdie's heartbreaking aria about the lost plantation on which she was raised: As Susanna Phillips sang, with emotion
flooding every note but never disrupting the line, Addie at first looks on somewhat ruefully: The glory of plantation days is not my or my people's glory, she must be thinking. As Birdie becomes more intimate in her revelations, the convalescent Horace and his daughter Alexandra look on with rapt interest. Addie turns away, as if in respect for her subordinate station. Finally, she comes back to assist Birdie's departure from the scene, moved by both her servant duties and a compassion that had flared beautifully in an earlier scene when she sings a blues lullaby to settle Birdie down.

Ron Raines captured the temperamental volatility of Oscar, both in his abuse of Birdie and his being somewhat slow on the uptake. He's no match for the manipulative skill of Regina and Ben, both of  whom, as Ben sings, "have  good digestion." Michael Day plays Oscar and Birdie's dense, careless son Leo with a flair that is brought up short when the dying Horace gets clued in to his thievery.

Monica Dewey was radiant as the ingénue Giddens daughter Alexandra, singing with a winning blend of naivete and growing self-awareness that makes her final decision to leave not only plausible, but also inevitable. As Horace Giddens, Kristopher Irmiter accomplished the difficult task of operatic singing that remarkably conveyed the precarious health of a morally sensitive, mentally alert but physically ill man.

Poised as it is between Broadway and opera, with a knowledge of several American vernacular styles folded in, Blitzstein's music also serves Hellman's drama as if he wanted to celebrate its instant-classic status as an American tragedy. His stylistic breadth and showmanship clearly influenced
Leonard Bernstein; in one place, the bones of "Maria" can clearly be heard as if revealed by X-ray.

"Regina" exists in several versions that may rival "Boris Godunov" in the different perspectives they are capable of offering. In this one, based on the Scottish Opera version, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has made a strong case for putting "Regina" firmly in the American operatic canon.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

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