Beauty Pageants

See them while you can. That seems to be the message of the City Opera’s imported “festival opera” co-productions, short runs of unusual works more likely to attract the adventurous than to draw general audiences. Two such connoisseur items have just flitted in and out of the company’s repertory, both presented so superlatively and received so warmly that it seems almost criminal not to bring them back. The first was The Mother of Us All, the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein panoramic celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s fight for women’s voting rights, which had its premiere in 1947 at Columbia University. Actually, this work and the pair’s earlier collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts, are among the most frequently performed and highly regarded of all American operas. The fact that it has taken this long for a major New York company to mount a production is, as Stein might say, rather horrible.

Well, perhaps it was worth the wait. Directed by Christopher Alden and designed by Allen Moyer, this Mother was first seen two summers ago at Glimmerglass. I enjoyed it there, but I adored it at the State Theater, thanks to a stronger cast, tauter musical direction, and an overall sharpening of the staging. Unlike the free-associative text for Four Saints, The Mother of Us All does have a linear progress of sorts, despite its huge cast of historical personages, real and imagined, from Ulysses S. Grant, Daniel Webster, John Adams, and Lillian Russell to Stein and Thomson themselves. Most productions present the work as a loosely organized but colorful pageant of Americana and leave it at that. But Alden has looked deeper into the piece and discovered many wonderful hidden nuggets of wit and wisdom in Stein’s virtuoso wordplay and Thomson’s colorfully quilted memory-book score of hymns, marches, waltzes, and salty harmonies.

The opera features 26 characters in all; each has at least one chance to shine, and Alden finds precisely the right gesture, expression, or inspired sight gag to define a personality and bring it to theatrical life. He also explores the relationships of the more prominent characters, sometimes with fanciful inventions but without ever betraying the essentially serious nature of the piece – the scene where Susan B. quietly takes Jo the Loiterer aside and explains the differences between rich and poor is positively heartbreaking. Nor is Alden afraid of highlighting, in the warmest and most natural ways, the gay subtext clearly indicated by Stein for Anthony, her companion Anne, and their obsessive acolyte Isabel Wentworth. Moyer’s sets provide an enchanting acting space: Susan B. does her work in a cozy nineteenth-century drawing room-study while Webster conducts his pompous orations, Russell performs her ditsy music-hall routines, and Adams stiffly woos Constance Fletcher in a public area resembling a country schoolhouse, a reminder that we are being treated to the most deliciously entertaining lesson in American history.

The City Opera’s resident diva, Lauren Flanigan, embodied the mother of us all to perfection – I doubt if the part has ever had a more vivid or committed interpreter. The sheer intensity of feeling and firmness of purpose that drove the real Anthony was present in her every word, note, and movement, although I am still waiting for a Susan B. who can effortlessly float those pianissimo high G’s at the moving final scene. A few more firmer voices onstage, in fact, would not have been amiss, and perhaps the orchestra under George Manahan was a rehearsal or two away from the ideal. No matter. I’ve seen quite a few Mothers in my day, and even coached one myself in college. But the City Opera’s is definitely the one Stein and Thomson must have dreamed about.

The City Opera’s next festive offering was Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, a work only recently upgraded and now securely ranked among the composer’s mature masterpieces. Not so long ago, it was generally considered that even Mozart nodded here, inexplicably wasting his precious time on a stiff, old-fashioned opera seria-type libretto after three miraculous collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Now we can see just how ingeniously he loosened and reshaped the formal patterns of seria to create an original piece of music theater in some ways even more advanced than Don Giovanni. In Mozart’s hands, the story of how the Roman emperor Titus pardoned his close friend and would-be political assassin, Sesto, becomes a disturbing morality play full of question marks. Picture a Julius Caesar recovered from his murderous assault to confront a repentant Brutus, who must painfully work out the consequences of his actions.

Director Stephen Wadsworth takes this view of Tito, runs with it, and for the first time in my experience turns the opera into a powerfully moving human drama. Updating the action to 1791, the year of Mozart’s death and when the work was composed, adds little, but Wadsworth’s handling of one-on-one relationships – personenregie, in opera talk – is inspired. All the characters now play a key role in the drama, and each faces up to his or her moral responsibility in different ways, with Tito and Sesto at the center of the dilemma. Their reconciliation is hard-won – so much so, in fact, that when the curtain falls on the final happy resolution, one wonders if anyone onstage will ever fully recover from such deep wounds.

Sesto is understandably the most tortured of all, a fact made abundantly clear by the quiet intensity of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s luminous acting and singing. Although announced as battling a viral infection, Hunt Lieberson traced Sesto’s two big arias with the firmly centered tone and refined phrasing one expects from this treasurable singer, while Kurt Streit as Tito was no less dramatically engaged or vocally polished. Apart from occasional trouble at the top of her soprano, Marie Plette was most effective as the scheming Vitellia, and I could detect nothing but excellence from Laura Tucker (Annio), Tracy Dahl (Servilia), and Jake Gardner (Publio). A seventh important solo voice came from the orchestra: Laura Flax, who played the prominent clarinet and basset-horn solos exquisitely. Indeed, the orchestral playing under Harry Bicket’s precise musical direction was satisfying in every way. More, please.

Beauty Pageants