Tuesday, October 25, 2016

New music telling an old story

I have hesitated to write this post. Not because of anything wrong with the show, far from it. But simply because, this was the first time I have heard two friends who I have known on line for more years than I care to remember, two friends I love and respect, and I struggled to work out how to show them the respect and love due them and their performances, and yet not give the impression of being totally uncritical.

So, first of all, the story was Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's tale of love, passion and redemption, in a new setting with words by Diane Olsen and a score by Louis Karchin, a new composer for me. His music fits within a very traditional framework, with clearly designated arias and recits, ensembles and the like. This is not a criticism by any means, giving us the familiar on which is built something new, is a long proven technique, and one I endorse.  His music is tonal and accessible, creating a very atmospheric sound world with his small orchestral forces (a scratch band of about 30). As you all know, Jane Eyre is a story of gothic creepiness and Karchin's orchestration clearly came from the world of creepy movie music, with added textures from harp and xylophone/marimba. The closest comparison I can think of, would be possibly a Peter Sculthorp score, mixed with Korngold. It is a score I would love to hear again in the future, with a well rehearsed full pit orchestra, as it really was quite glorious in parts, but there were times when the orchestra lacked precision in their ensemble, more I suspect from a lack of rehearsals together than anything else. Playing modern music is always fraught with traps for musicians, and I suspect there were times more rehearsal would have tightened everything from the pit.

Having said that, the conducting of Sara Jobin looked from behind a model of clarity, giving a clear beat that was easily visible to both stage and orchestra (and those towards the from of the audience), that meant the singers and orchestra were never in danger of losing each other, despite the challenges of the score.

Kristine McIntyre's production (with set and video by Luke Cantarella) was a well thought out solution to a plot that requires frequent scene changes, most simply requiring a change of chairs/tables, etc, with the projections on stage clearly creating the rest. Theses were so effective,  that running late when we arrived, we thought the staging was a complex set to show two rooms in Thornfield, the Rochester house. It was only with the scene change we realized this was all projection on blank walls.

McIntyre worked hard to bring the characters to life, Jane's nervous shrinking violet who gradually comes out of her shell, Rochester's scarred soul desperately trying to build some happiness for himself, Mrs Fairfax, the Rivers in their eccentricity, all came through as solid characters. And, unlike another production I saw in NYC, we never had to suspend belief that characters could not see each other, despite clearly being in view of each other.

So, voices you say? Well, first of all, this production proved that singing in English is actually quite challenging for some. Providing clear diction, while projecting over an orchestra is almost impossible for some, while for others, it proved easy. Both Kimberly Giordano (Fairfax) and Ryan MacPherson (Rochester) (both of whom I knew previously) were thankfully both models for clarity and understanding. I did feel that deciding to set Rochester as a tenor might not be the most appropriate choice for the composer, but Ryan brought out the tortured soul well, giving him depth and strength, as well as portraying a character we wanted to livke, and see happy.

Kimberly brought life to Mrs Fairfax, making her flesh and blood, not just a character there for others to engage with. She was a part of the fabric of the household and clearly cared for the inhabitants in it. Her acting, coupled with her ability to make every word clear while maintaining a solid vocal line meant she was more important to driving the story forward than the size of her role might suggest.

As Jane Eyre, Jennifer Zetlan looked and acted the part with aplomb. Her words may not have been as clear as others, but, she was also dealing with what sounded like quite challenging vocal writing, so, the amount of words that were clear, was certainly a credit also. Her role is of course also far and away the longest, and she never flagged or showed signs of tiring, just focused and in character while pouring her heart out in long lines of music that covered her whole range.

Other characters were performed with aplomb, but really, this is a score that revolves around these three characters, with others getting featured, but only for a brief portion. There was a small ensemble of women who featured as Jane's pupils for the scene in the school, who also assisted with moving furniture on stage in the Thornfield scenes in costume as servants, usually with Mrs Fairfax in character, ordering them around.

So, to sum up, this is an opera that I would like to see again, that would work in a standard opera company's season. It is not one to scare the horses. And, it also is a story that is well known, even if much abridged in its telling. In this shortened form, it certainly stands up as a great night at the theatre.

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