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Murder, She Sang

A Hitchcockian radio classic makes for a delicious, if soapy, opera.

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It's odd that it took so long for an opera to emerge out of Sorry, Wrong Number, Lucille Fletcher's classic forties radio drama, conceived as diva material right from the start. Agnes Moorehead made her name as the original Mrs. Guglielmo Stevenson, a bedridden New York society matron who accidentally overhears her own murder being plotted when her telephone wires get crossed, and Barbara Stanwyck had a field day with the role in the 1948 film. In making his operatic setting, composer Jack Beeson wisely used the taut half-hour radio script as the basis for his libretto rather than the overinflated movie scenario, producing a compact one-acter that I predict will enjoy a long and healthy life. The Center for Contemporary Opera recently gave the work its premiere at the Kaye Playhouse, a solid, honorable introduction to the piece but perhaps not one that revealed all of its strongest points.

Beeson has put a lifetime of operatic craft into the score, and his expertise tells in every measure. Mrs. Stevenson is of course at the center of this conversation piece, her growing frustration and terror perfectly mirrored in the natural flow and concentrated lyricism of her vocal line -- an object lesson in how to set English to music. Through sliding wall panels we can spy telephone operators, a policeman, various service types, and two contract killers on the phone with the helpless victim at crucial moments, all shrewdly paced to lead inexorably to the grisly finale. Subtle score details abound to heighten the mood: opening music that replicates the exact clicking tempo of rotary-phone dialing; atmospheric evocations of the eerie sounds outside the victim's window on Sutton Place; a poignant reference to Puccini's Manon Lescaut when Mrs. Stevenson echoes Manon's "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" at the end of her own final aria.

In a role that requires the nuanced dramatic intensity and vocal charisma of a Renata Scotto, a Denise Duval, or at the very least a Catherine Malfitano, Patricia Dell was more serviceable than electrifying, applying her reedy soprano intelligently if rather too cautiously. Efficiency also best describes Charles Maryan's functional stage direction, the practical living-room set, and Richard Marshall's conducting of a game seventeen-piece instrumental ensemble. Sorry, Wrong Number has been safely if rather too sanely launched, and I look forward to seeing it again in a more theatrically savvy production.

Beeson's opera was followed by another one-acter, the late Elie Siegmeister's Angel Levine, based on a tale by Bernard Malamud. Perhaps you have to be Jewish to appreciate this fantasy about a poor tailor who, afflicted by woes on all sides, finds an improbable savior in an African-American Jewish angel from Harlem. There seems to be a moral here about faith and identity that escapes me, but I do admire Siegmeister's tangy 1985 score, an often striking blend of jazz, Hebrew cantilena, and all-purpose dissonance. The performance was also lively and characterful, mostly as a result of the flavorful work of Richard Frisch as Nathan Manischevitz and Sam McKelton as Alexander Levine.


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