Tonight I had the great opportunity of seeing the New York premiere of "Seance on a Wet Afternoon", the opera written by Stephen Schwartz and produced by the New York City Opera. I call it a "great opportunity" because 1) It was the New York premiere of a highly anticipated work by one of Broadway's most accomplished composers, 2) My friend Axel scored us free tickets through Theater Mania Gold Club and we were seated in row B of the Orchestra! If "Broadway" is one of my favorite words then you can imagine what "Free Broadway" means to me, and let's face it, in this economy I like to grab a bargain when it comes my way. Of course logistically this was not Broadway being that we were seeing an opera at the
Prior to this evenings performance all I knew about "Seance" was that it was composed by Schwartz and had it's world premiere at California's Opera Santa Barbara in 2009. I found out from my program that the source material is a novel and a 1964 movie starring Kim Stanley. I was impressed from the outset by the "Hitchcockian" mood set by the prelude, and being unfamiliar with the story I found myself wondering what would happen next, and the first act built to a suspenseful climax. Lauren Flanigan portayed Myra Foster, the medium seeking fame and fortune through devising a kidnapping plot, and is known for her penetrating studies of dramatic opera roles, and here she performed as though the role were written with her voice in mind. It's rough to bring off a part that deals with the supernatural and not appear hokey or fake, and here Ms. Flanigan's immersion in the character was absolutely complete and often riveting. Her voice was not perfect tonight, the one flaw being that she would occassionally go flat on phrase endings in the middle range, but everything else including some blazing high notes and excellent dramatic singing was fully in place. As a mid-to-late career role she is in amazing form. Another excellent and memorable performance was given by Melody Moore as the mother, Rita Clayton. She really connected dramatically in the poigant and dramatic aria about her kidnapped child. She has a fantastic soprano and looks stunning onstage too. No doubt New York will be seeing more of her in the future. The other principals were uniformly excellent, but a real stand-out performance for me was from Michael Kepler Meo, a boy soprano, as Arthur. I struggle to enjoy this type of voice because usually they are under-powered or insipid (or both) but this boy can SING. He has one of those fluttery vibratos which is very exciting and his voice had a full, rich quality that I don't normally associate with children.
The score of "Seance" will no doubt be controversial among the members of the New York classical music world, many of whom tend to be snotty and arrogant. I imagine Mr. Schwartz being written off as a Broadway composer or a scorer of saccharine movie soundtracks, but tonight was an accomplishment that I hope will not be disregarded (and the cheering crowd at the curtain call indicated this may be a popular, if not critical success). What Schwartz has written is a somewhat complex but totally accessible work that is tuneful and atmostpheric that can be enjoyed by opera and theatre lovers alike. His orchestrations are gorgeous and interesting, and he acheived something special in that even though this is his first opera the "sound" of it let's you know it is by Schwartz. I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea about this serious work, but I am certain I heard brief strains of music reminiscent of "Godspell" and "Pippin" (maybe only a few bars), which is not to say he's ripping off his own tunes, I'm just pointing out that Schwartz has his own musical vocabulary that he works from, similar to what we refer to as the "Sondheim sound".
In the today's world of music writing a lyrical piece like "Seance" is rubbing against the grain of what a modern opera is often expected to be. Using the twelve tone scale (Schoenberg), a mathematical approach which creates extreme dissonance, or a repetitive pattern (Glass) that conjures up a hypnotic quality have been the forms that for years defined the genre. What one might call "pretty" music does not get taken very seriously. Music scolars like the more dissonant stuff, yet audiences always seem to respond to the more lyrical pieces. Such was the case with two productions I saw at The Metropolitan Opera - "The Ghosts of Versailles" and "An American Tragedy". "Seance" will please those looking for lyricism.
After seeing him take his writing to this level I hope Schwartz will turn back to my personal favorite of his works, "The Baker's Wife", and rework that lovely score with a problematic book and turn it into the Broadway success that it could be.
"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" is playing through May 1 at the New York City Opera. Go see it!
Update 4/27/11 - As expected the reviews for "Seance" came in mixed to negative. One reviewer kept comparing it to the movie "The Lovely Bones" (???) and called it kitschy, while The Times said it doesn't know whether it's an opera or a musical. It's sad to me that these so-called music professionals are so jaded that they can't take a work like this for what it is and enjoy it as much as the thousands of people in the audience did.