The New York City Opera is a company at the brink. Having barely survived mismanagement and financial ruin, it has begun to rise from the near-dead. But not far. It scrambles for fitful mini-seasons, borrows or recycles most of its sporadic productions, constantly courts box-office disaster and toys with conservative ritual disguised as progressive adventure. And now it faces a union strike.

On Tuesday it managed the local premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based on Mark McShane’s spooky novel and Bryan Forbes’s 1964 film. The composer and librettist of the highfalutin opera is Stephen Schwartz, the sentimental Broadway whizz who created Godspell (1971), Pippin (1972) and Wicked (2003). The staging came from the modest Opera Santa Barbara. Next year it travels to Brisbane.

How best to describe this oh-so-serious project? Let’s see. How about slick schlock? Naivety masquerading as profundity? Turgidity in quest of tragedy? Meretricious claptrap? Saccharine-coated pathos? Oh dear.

The meandering melodrama examines the plight of Myra Foster, a terminally ambitious medium blessed – or cursed – with psychic verity. Haunted by a long-departed son, she is driven to delirious delusion, kidnapping, spousal manipulation, murder and long arias capped with unmotivated high notes.

Schwartz assigns singsong setpieces to his principals, with effects seemingly more concerned with exhibitionism than dramatic impact. Frantic choral interludes suggest
neat showbiz punctuation. The durchkomponiert dribble-drabbles emanating from the pit, orchestrated by Schwartz and William David Brohn, resemble busymusic. The hard-to-understand text features rhymes such as: “I yearned, I learned, I returned.”

A strong cast is dominated by Lauren Flanigan, who vitalises Myra’s agonies with expressive intensity and brilliant if unsteady soprano tone. Kim Josephson musters ongoing sympathy as her chronically bumbling husband. Melody Moore makes much of the lofty lines and nervous platitudes of Rita Clayton, mother of Myra’s young victim. George Manahan conducts with bravado. Scott Schwartz directs his father’s not-so-grand opus deftly, and Heidi Ettinger’s revolving set proves both attractive and functional.

In all, a good performance of a bad opera.  

2 star rating

New York Opera

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