by Michael Caruso
Both the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet gave performances this past weekend of their final presentations of the 2010-11 season. The OCP presented the American premier of Hans Werner Henze’s “Phaedra” in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. The East Falls-based Pennsylvania Ballet performed Sir Frederick Ashton’s “La Fille mal gardee” (The Wayward Daughter) in the Academy of Music.
Fortunately for those lovers of either or both opera and ballet who missed the shows this past weekend, both the Ballet and the OCP continue their respective performances this weekend. “La Fille mal gardee” is reprised Friday, Saturday and Sunday while “Phaedra” is given again Friday and Sunday, June 10 and 12.
Set to a romping score by Ferdinand Herold effectively arranged by John Lanchberry, Ashton’s “La Fille mal gardee” is one of the funniest ballets in the repertoire. Its story defies common sense, even within the extraordinary low standards of ballet and opera libretti, in that there really is no chance that Lisa would ever permit herself to be married to the idiotic Alain, even though his father is wealthy and her mother fervently desires the match. Even in ballet it wouldn’t be possible for Lisa to marry anyone other than the dashing Colas. While in opera, such a narrative would turn out to be a tragedy, in ballet it’s a guaranteed recipe for comedy. And Ashton has managed to play up every comic opportunity with visual antics that nonetheless both propel the plot and reveal the characters within it. Even if the story doesn’t make any sense, the movement onstage is both beautiful to the eye and convincing to the mind. It all holds together as tightly as a drum because Ashton’s sense of visual structure is flawless.
Sunday afternoon’s show was very nearly stolen by West Mt. Airy’s Jeffrey Gribler in drag as Lisa’s mother. The former principal dancer with the company and now its balletmaster, Gribler hammed it up theatrically and danced with amazing flexibility and subtlety.
The Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Henze’s “Phaedra” is one of those events that are not very easy to judge. On the one hand, you have to give credit to any company that takes the risk (especially in these perilous economic times) of mounting a very, very modern opera and then performing it very, very well. On the other hand, any music critic can’t help but admit not having much liked the opera.
Based on Christian Lehnert’s German libretto, which itself is loosely based on ancient Greek legends and dramas, Henze’s one-act score abounds in oftentimes startling and arresting sonic moments and evocative and dazzling sonorities. All the same, it nonetheless offers nary a single line of lyrical vocal writing. The vocal parts zigzag here, there and everywhere but never offer a compelling shape that even hints at coming naturally from either the voice, itself, or from the text.
Now I must confess that I found the libretto particularly heinous. Aside from making no legitimate sense whatsoever, it was pompous and contrived nearly to the point of worthlessness. Yet many a foolish opera libretto at one point inspired a magnificent score. Just think about some of the nonsense Giuseppe Verdi set to music — and “Il Trovatore” isn’t the worst of the lot. Unfortunately, “Phaedra” is no “Trovatore.” It’s a rather unappealing score, simple as that, and it doesn’t work especially well as a musical stage piece, either.
That said, the OCP’s presentation of “Phaedra” opening night Friday in the Perelman Theater was splendid, and the company should be heartily congratulated for its efforts. Conductor Corrado Rovaris led the reduced orchestra excitingly and sensitively, and Robert Driver’s direction was imaginative yet unaffected. Tenor William Burden was superb as Hippolyt, the young man who is the object of his stepmother Phaedra’s lustful designs. He virtually defied the music to sing expressively, and his acting was simple yet powerful. Mezzo Tamara Mumford was regal yet obsessive as Phaedra, determined to have her way with her handsome stepson, then even more determined to punish him for his rejection of her advances. Soprano Elizabeth Reiter was a tad shrill as Aphrodite, but countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was theatrically and vocally riveting as Artemis.
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