October 7th, 2013

“Victory for Victoria”

On Friday night, September 6th, we went to Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove to see a concert performance of “Victory for Victoria,” a new musical about the life of Victoria Woodhull, sometime spirit medium, the country’s first woman stockbroker, one of the 19th century’s most notorious advocates for women’s suffrage, and the first woman to run for the Presidency of the United States.

Woodhull, born Victoria Claflin, came to public life early, working with her younger sister, Tennessee, as part of her amoral father’s medicine show. Besides singing and testifying to the efficacy of “Dr. Claflin’s Pure Elixir,” the girls acted as fortune tellers by means of “spirits” whom they claimed talked to them. (The script makes it plain that most of the time they are fraudulent and know it, but also that they both have, from time to time experienced “visions” and spirit voices they believe to be real.)

In order to escape her odious father, she accepts the proposal of Dr. Canning Woodhull, who soon proved to be a disappointment due to his alcoholism. The script depicts Victoria giving birth at home alone while her doctor husband is getting drunk(er) at the nearby saloon.
She is soon shown as leaving Woodhull for the much more supportive Col. James Blood, who became her second husband. (Note: The musical script plays loose with facts for dramatic effect, but also portrays Woodhull in much the same light her opponents shown on her. Records are unclear when she obtained a divorce from Dr. Woodhull, and when she was legally married to Col. Blood, which, given her highly publicized and often deliberately misconstrued stance on “free love”, allowed enemies to argue that she was a bigamist, if not actually living in a ménage a trois with Blood and Woodhull, whom she supported when he became unable to work.)

With Blood’s help, she rescues her sister from their father, and moves t o New York, where they become protégés of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ultimately helps set them up as the first women to own a stock brokerage. Whether Vanderbilt was more enamoured of their supposedly spiritually inspired stock advice, or Tennessee’s charms is debatable, but he was reportedly interested in both.

The musical deals with Victoria’s rise to becoming the first woman to own and operate a newspaper, the second woman to petition Congress for suffrage, and the first woman to run for President, and her fall, when speaking about “free love” caused her to become a scandal, and her publishing of details of the extramarital affairs of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher resulted in being prosecuted for obscenity by Anthony Comstock.

The concert presentation had an excellent cast of voices, lead by Kerry Hart Bienemann as Victoria and Katy Johnson as Tennessee. A very literate and clever book was supplied by sister authors Susan Peterson Holmes and Peggy Peterson Ryan, and, mirabile dictu, a tuneful and singable score by Alissa Rhode.

We had been particularly interested in the piece because Georgie had done research on Victoria Woodhull and made a presentation about her at TeslaCon. We found it a fascinating and amusing portrait of a truly unique American character, many of whose ideas are still thought radical today. The musical, still a work in progress, has great promise, and we hope one day to be able to see a full professionally produced performance.

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Skylight Opera Theatre, "Fidelio"

On Sunday, September 21st, we went to the Skylight to see the season-opening production of “Fidelio” the sole opera of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The protagonist of the opera is Leonore (Cassandra Black), who is searching for her husband, Florestan (Chase Taylor), who has been “disappeared” after criticizing the local governor. Disguised as a youth, “Fidelio”, she has been searching the prisons for her husband. Her energy and competence have won her the confidence of the prison warden, Rocco (Chris Besch), as well as the interest of his daughter, Marzelline (Erica Schuller), and she is about to be permitted to work in the “secret cells,” where the political prisoners are held.

Rocco is in the process of arranging a marriage between his daughter and “Fidelio” when word comes that the prison will be inspected by the Justice Minister, Don Fernando (Dustin Hertzog), an honest man and friend of Florestan. This galvanizes the governor, Don Pizarro (Eric McKeever) who fears that his illegal imprisonment of Florestan will be discovered. He attempts to order Rocco to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses. Don Pizarro then declares that he himself will do the murder, and directs Rocco to open an ancient cistern below the prison which will conceal Florestan's body.

Rocco takes Fidelio with him to open the cistern. Fidelio recognizes the wretched prisoner as her husband, and, when Don Pizarro comes to murder him, she comes between them and threatens Don Pizarro with the pickaxe she has been working with. She reveals herself as Leonore to everyone's amazement. Don Pizarro is thunderstruck long enough for the trumpets to announce Don Fernando's arrival, when he realizes all is lost.

Besides liking the music, we were attracted to this production by the promised "Bollywood" treatment to be given by the Skylight's new Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman, who is of Indian extraction. In part, this refers to the practice, common in India's movie industry, of including musical numbers with song and dance, in almost any motion picture. In this case, the cast was costumed in a pre-British Raj fashion, and set against a background of painted plants and animals by artist Raghava KK that is reminiscent of illustrations from books of Hindu myth. Hair and beards were culturally appropriate. No attempt was made to imitate South Asian skin tones, the actors wearing their own complexions, which worked well. Dancers, choreographed by Deepa Devasena, a scholar and teacher of Indian dance, accompanied many of the musical numbers, which added nice vigor to arias such as Marzelline's aria in the first act, "If only I were already united with thee" ("O wär ich schon mit dir vereint), which otherwise is a lengthy stretch of the singer alone on stage. We didn't get the scene we had visualized, which was grateful prisoners gently dancing in the sun and air when allowed out for exercise, but dances added to other scenes, such as the triumphal chorus at the climax, without being distracting.

All of the singing was good and quite beautiful, with the regrettable exception of Florestan's second-act solos such as "God! What darkness here!" Mr. Taylor's singing sounded harsh, and with an excessively wide vibrato. I conjecture that he may have been trying a bit too hard to portray vocally Florestan's weakness and misery in those parts, since he blended well with the rest of the cast on the later ensemble pieces. The orchestra, directed by Mr. Subbaraman, did good justice to Beethoven's music. We thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

Although set in a past time even relative to Beethoven's day, this production reminded us that the story is timeless, and that, unfortunately, the the evils of secret prisons, political corruptions, and abuse of power are with us now as much as they ever were.

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