Two Girls Without a Clue
OPERA-LITE at Spoleto 2010.
While I wasn’t assigned to deliver formal reviews of this year’s pair of what passed for conventionally-staged operas, I was able to attend both Wolfgang Rihm’s contemporary effort, Proserpina, and Neely Bruce’s modern reconstruction of the English ballad-opera, Flora. But since both of them are fairly short, single-act affairs (no intermissions), many Spoleto-goers are thinking of Spoleto 2010 as the year without a “real opera.”
Sure enough, we got nothing that you would call grand opera this time, though that was not by design. The festival was originally slated to present a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine this year. But, as festival General Director Nigel Redden told me in a recent interview, there were some budget cuts this year–and one of the cost-cutting measures was to rent an existing production rather than stage an original effort. But the festival planners learne–too late–that the rented production’s sets and props were simply too big for our Gaillard Auditorium, and cutting them down to size was not feasible. So we were left with the pair of what would otherwise have been considered “side-attraction” operas (three, if you count Philemon and Baucis, the Haydn opera that was staged for marionettes).
But neither production gave serious cause for complaint. Spoleto never does anything half-way when it comes to any kind of opera–and so these productions both turned out to be interesting and entertaining affairs that were imaginatively staged, well-cast and beautifully performed. My purpose here is not to offer formal reviews; that’s already been done by my Charleston City Paper colleagues (click here for Nick Smith’s thorough evaluation of Flora, and here for Fernando Rivas’ thoughtful assessment of Proserpina). Instead, I aim to offer a study in contrasts, along with some of my own observations and insights into each work.
Certainly, the two works have very little in common–though, with a little stretching of the imagination, they do share the common theme of young women trapped in unhappy circumstances by dominant men, and who have no clue as to how to escape their dilemmas. The young goddess Proserpina has been abducted by Pluto, ruler of the underworld, where she is to be his wife–with no apparent hope of escape. Heiress Flora has lost her parents and been forced to dwell with her aristocratic evil uncle Sir Thomas Testy, who has ignoble designs on both her fortune and her sweet physical person.
From there, the works unfold in entirely different directions and with widely diverging purposes. Proserpina is an entirely serious depiction of mythical tragedy, based on an obscure monodrama by German master J.W. von Goethe that was written shortly after the untimely death of his sister Cornelia (who had been trapped in a loveless marriage). Its roots lie in both German dramatic and musical traditions, cast here in modern artistic context. Flora, on the other hand, makes light of its heroine’s plight, never taking it seriously–as one would expect from a frothy and comedic English ballad-opera: essentially the English answer to the German “Singspiel” form, its roots in the centuries-old European Commedia dell’arte tradition. Flora can also be seen as a stepping-stone in the English operetta tradition that reached its height of popularity with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. The parallels are obvious: the ridiculous plots, the hackneyed characters, the frequent use of “patter-singing” and the theme of class conflict.
Music, stage design and characterization were also about as unlike as they could possibly be. Wolfgang Rihm’s often atonal-sounding contemporary score defies classification, fitting neatly into no particular musical style or “ism.” But its strong impact is beyond question, as it paints a bleak and forbidding sonic backdrop to a seemingly hopeless story line. In this respect, the music’ s effect approaches that of Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus, the Last Night from several Spoletos back–which I described at the time as something of a feverish, waking nightmare. The music also fit the set: a spare, sparsely-propped (nothing more than Pluto’s armchair “throne”) design inspired by the “preserved decay” of a room in Charleston’s historic Rhett-Aiken House.
The austere ambience is intensified by the presence of only two characters: Proserpina–spectacularly sung by soprano Heather Buck–and Pluto: a mute role that fell to actor Jason Bruffy. And Buck remained the sole vocal presence, save for the eerie-sounding voices the offstage female chorus–performed here by the wondrous women of the Westminster Choir. Nobody else was seen onstage until fairly late in the opera, when the heroine is joined by her hitherto offstage retinue of “Parcae” (Fates)–looking like a bunch of ghoulish kewpie dolls as they bring her the magical fruit (and its mother tree) that brings the only measure of salvation open to her.
By stark contrast, Flora’s non-challenging score–masterfully reconstructed from the original popular English songs of the day–turned out to be a delightful musical pastiche. In its light and bubbly course, no great demands were made upon either performers or audience. Background sounds–mostly dog barks and birdcalls–abounded. The movable set was lush, beautifully crafted and appealing. It accommodated a comparative horde of characters–often stereotyped according to class–and multiple singing roles, both major and minor. The contrived plot was spiced with plenty of energetic buffoonery, mild slapstick and genteel ribaldry. Indeed, the moods could hardly have been more at odds.
But, in the end, solutions (at least partial ones) are found to each of our heroines’ dilemmas. Proserpina–after eating her enchanted fruit–is granted a partial reprieve, permitting her at least to escape her personal hell for six months of every year. Flora ends up blissfully married to Tom Friendly, her suitor. And both productions included local twists: Flora’s historic 1736 production here in Charleston, and the above-mentioned modeling of Proserpina’s set after an actual historic local landmark.
And nobody who has written about these productions found cause to dispute that either of them failed to achieve success, each in its own distinctive way. Both were perfect examples of the rare and widely divergent sorts of art that are very much at home at a festival like Spoleto USA.
(Acknowledgments: illustrations for Flora costumes by John Pascoe)