Not only is The Rivals a new opera, it is a new comic opera. A new comic opera with tunes and melodies! A new comic opera with tunes and melodies AND an actual poetic libretto that rhymes! Not that this last is something I would have requested or expected--Sheridan's play is not in verse--but it was a charming surprise, and, we thought, did a lot to enhance the period setting of the piece.
The action of the piece is moved from the spa town of Bath, in England, to the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, in the early 1900's, which has a similar milieu of being both a playground for the well-do-do and a marriage mart. Mrs. Malaprop (Diane Lane) is trying to find a husband for her niece, Lydia Larkspur (Alicia Berneche), and has her mind set on a titled suitor. Lydia, on the other hand is, enamored of "romance" and longs to find marital bliss starving in a garret with a talented but impoverished artist. To that end, she has become involved with "Waverly," a supposed opera composer. (There are a number of enjoyable jabs at the institution of opera in the witty libretto--.) However. "Waverly" is in reality Captain Jack Absolute, naval attache, and heir to an earldom. Complications ensue when Jack's father, Sir Anthony, enters into a marriage agreement for Jack and Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop, putting Jack into the decidedly uncomfortable position of not only being his own rival for Lydia's hand, but of having his imposture revealed untimely.
Further adding to the fun are Matthew DiBattista as Jasper Vanderbilt, another unsuccessful suitor for Lydia's hand, and Zach Boirchevsky and Katherine M. Pracht as Nicholas Astor and Lydia's cousin Julia, whose love keeps coming off the rails due to Nicholas' low self image and conviction that everyone only likes him for his money.
Diane Lane gave us a handsome and vivacious Mrs. Malaprop, and carried off her fractured syntax, frenetic activity, and over-the-top gowns in fine style. Ms. Berneche starts off the show "languishing"--the character's name in Sheridan is "Lydia Languish,"--but shows some real fire when she learns how she has been manipulated. Christopher Burchett was very fine as the handsome Captain Jack, showing both an excellent voice and comic timing. They were well supported by Borichevsky as the depressive Nicholas, Pracht as sensible Julia, Robert Orth as Sir Anthony Absolute, DiBattista as the hayseed Jasper, and Andrew Wilkowske as the conniving Baron von Hackenbock. There was also an ensemble of servants, lead by Christine Robertson as Lucy, in a classic "clever servant" role.
The score was tuneful and pretty, easy to listen to, and borrowing period elements. We were pleased to hear actual duets, trios, and choruses, things we miss in other contemporary operas.
(It seems that modern atonal/a-tune-al music just doesn't lend itself to ensembles, which, upon reflection, seems to make sense. If you don't have melody, how can you have harmony? By contrast, consider Of Mice and Men, a 1970 work by Carlisle Floyd. It's pretty much all solo voices with occasional singers countering one another, and the "bunkhouse chorus", which is the only ensemble number in the piece. It's not bad, but, having heard it we are giving the Florentine's production of Floyd's Susannah this season a miss--.)
The production was handsomely costumed, and mounted on a cleverly used turntable set. The show was enlivened by the kind of clever stage business that has become a Skylight trademark, and the orchestra, under the direction of Richard Casey played well if a bit too loudly occasionally.
Mechem's treatment of The Rivals was thoroughly enjoyable, and we can hope it will find a place in the light opera repertory.
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