“Accessible” Is Not Enough

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Some things it hurts to hate: your offspring’s new fiancé, a pricey meal, a freshly composed opera. It can’t be helped, though, in the case of Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon, which is bringing the New York City Opera season to a soggy close. Schwartz’s prodigious success as a Broadway tunesmith (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) left him with a nagging desire to write an honest-to-goodness, through-composed, and all-sung tragedy. Unfortunately, he left his dramatic instincts and lyric gifts back at the office and produced a score that treats murderous lunacy like garden-variety wistfulness.

He began with fine material: a gothic psycho-thriller movie from 1964 about an underappreciated medium who concocts a plan to kidnap a child and then heroically help find her. It’s an ideal setup for the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who, with her impressive repertoire of hysterical mannerisms and a voice that can saw through steel, has made a specialty of playing unhinged women. Here she is Myra Foster, the clairvoyant, grieving ex-mother and imperious spouse, who would make a splendid opera character even if she were not also criminally inclined. Richard Strauss would have bathed her in succulent dissonances and poignant ambiguities.

There is nothing more operatic than creeping madness, but Schwartz doesn’t capitalize on its extremes. Whenever a scorching orchestral passage is called for, he cranks up the volume and brings out the brass. Whenever a melodic line promises to decant a character’s volatile inner life, he reflexively hangs it on a high note and hopes for the best. These climaxes get wheeled on and off like pieces of scenery, unheralded by any buildup of compulsive urgency or irresistible inventiveness. Though Schwartz, who also wrote the libretto, weighted it down with leaden rhymes (“unlit” and “sunlit,” “careful” and “heedful”), the words didn’t need to be deadly. Plenty of masterpieces have transcended platitudinous language; what an opera can’t survive is a timid score.

In the parade of missed opportunities, the most disappointing moment is the pregnant scene in which Myra’s broken and acquiescent husband, Bill, retracing the steps that led him to this moral bog, confronts the bitterness he’s been marinating in for years. What’s needed here is at least a smidgen of revelation, some musical clue that a trapped man suddenly sees the horror in his own weak will. Schwartz offers only boilerplate tunes that find a hook and stick to it, while the orchestra tries to compensate with tumult for the lack of either nuance or urgency.

Can we please stop describing such heavy-handed music as “accessible,” as if certain scores were intended for people with handicaps? The word has been used as a riposte to snobbery, a defense of simplicity, and a synonym for tunefulness. In practice, it’s an aggressive term, implying that more-complex styles are impassable Stygian swamps. Yes, the score to Séance invites listeners in—and then it leaves them to fill in the blanks.

Why does Schwartz treats opera so gingerly, abandoning techniques learned over a lifetime in the theater? Songs and arias are different beasts, but they occupy overlapping habitats, and if the composer had placed more faith in his songwriter’s intuition and his showbiz know-how, he might have given this lethally pleasant work a redemptive jolt of Wicked-ness.

He does owe a debt to his son Scott, who directed a taut, stark production that suggests just how effective an opera this could have been. The Fosters live in a tall Victorian house in San Francisco, one that rotates 360 degrees to reveal every cranny and whose translucent walls offer the sort of hazy ectoplasmic glimpses that Myra claims to have of the beyond. The cast does what it can: Flanigan overacts and oversings with her customary exuberance; as Bill, Kim Josephson manages to make the banality of evil seem genuinely sad. The very young and very talented Michael Kepler Meo brings the couple’s ghostly son Arthur back to full-throated warmth. It’s too bad he couldn’t raise this lifeless opera, too.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon
By Stephen Schwartz.
New York City Opera.
Through May 1.

“Accessible” Is Not Enough