He’s written Godspell, Pippin and the smash hit Wicked. He’s won Academy Awards for his lyrical contributions to the animated film Pocahontas and songs for The Prince of Egypt. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There wasn’t much left for him to accomplish but to realize his life long dream of composing an opera. Which Stephen Schwartz has now achieved.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon, music and libretto by Stephen Schwartz had its New York Premiere at the City Opera’s David H. Koch Theater April 19th – directed by his son Scott. Based on the 1964 screenplay by Brian Forbes and the novel by Mark McShane the material is very well suited for an operatic treatment.
Emotions run high in this unsettling and eerie story of Myra Foster (Lauren Flanigan), a medium who conducts séances using her dead son Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo) as a contact to the other side. She is unbalanced to begin with and is obsessive about being recognized for her talents. Her husband Bill Foster (Kim Josephson) supports her visions and needs to constantly reassure her of his love for her.
She has been told by her son that to gain recognition she must “borrow” Adriana Clayton (Bailey Grey) the daughter of a rich San Francisco couple – Charles Clayton (Todd Wilander) and Rita Clayton (Melody Moore). Hold her for ransom. Do not harm her in any way. And then hold a séance where she will reveal the location where Adriana is hidden and thereby becoming famous for solving the crime investigated by Inspector Watts (Phillip Boykin) a physic believer.
That is if all goes according to plan, which of course it doesn’t, affording Myra the medium to really lose it with some astounding vocal and dramatic fireworks.
This emotionally draining Séance is almost three hours long. The belabored first act sets up the characters and situation, teasing us with musical motifs, and lush orchestrations that emphasize the drama. The dialogue is sometimes spoken must mostly sung in an annoying unmelodic manner. Opportunities for the motifs to soar into beautiful arias are missed. I suppose, on purpose. Act II is much more satisfying, and leaves you with some striking images that are not easily forgotten.
This is not your traditional opera. Nor is it a Broadway musical. It is a hybrid that has some very dramatic moments, some interesting music, a terrific cast of singer/actors and a production that is superb. Supertitles clarify the strong libretto, but if seated in the orchestra the end result must be a very stiff neck.
Set designer Heidi Ettinger has created an other worldly Victorian home on two levels with opaque walls that add a scenic mysticism along with the curtain of chains that symbolically represents the rain and the psychological prison that Myra finds herself in. The lighting by David Lander is superb. As is the singing.
If only they had some arias in the truest sense of the word to sing. Séance on a Wet Afternoon could have been completely mesmerizing. It should have been.
www.nycopera.com Photo: Carol Rosegg
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