BWW Opera Review: A WIFE for All Seasons from City Opera at Harlem Stage

By: May. 02, 2016
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Elisa Quagliata as Jo/Hedda. Photo: Sarah Shatz

An absurdist mash-up of the lives of great Ashcan artist Edward Hopper and the infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, HOPPER'S WIFE--by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie--had its belated New York premiere last weekend by New York City Opera, in a clever production by Andreas Mitisek.

Wallace's soaring, often energetic score tingles with excitement, following closely the changes in each of the characters' outlooks. It combines a modern, Americana sound for Hopper, more jarring notes for Mrs. (Jo) Hopper and a style that morphs from stridently modern to bluegrass, from jazzy to torch songs for the totally fictional Ava, as she changes persona from artist's model to movie star. The New York City Opera Orchestra gave an lively performance of the eclectic score, conducted by James Lowe.

In life, Edward and Jo Hopper were married over 40 years; both were painters, though she is known mainly as his muse. It wasn't a successful marriage by all accounts, unless you count Hopper's significant output while they were together. Reputedly, he was unhappy with her as a wife and she felt marginalized on many fronts, from a lack of recognition as a painter to their isolated life outside a big city.

Left to right: Melanie Long as Ava,
Justin Ryan as Edward Hopper,
Elisa Quagliata as Jo/Hedda. Photo: Sarah Shatz

The writers have turned Jo into a modern woman, who balks at Hopper's treatment of her and decides to leave and reinvent herself. She heads West to Hollywood with Ava, the young woman who had replaced her as nude model for Hopper; while Ava (Gardner?) becomes established as a film star, Jo can't even get a job painting sets. Her fortunes start to change when she hears Ava chattering about the sleazy doings of stars like Clark Gable and, voila!, Hedda Hopper is born--the "gossip-mongering scourge" who set herself up as a keeper of public morality.

In the program notes, librettist Korie talks about the development of the storyline, but it's easy enough to think of the two writers sitting at a bar, after a couple of rounds, writing on a cocktail napkin, "Edward Hopper? Hedda Hopper?" It's a wild concept that manages to incorporate three outrageously fictional scenes: the suicide of Hopper (a la Norman Maine in "A Star is Born"), the murder of Ava by Jo/Hedda, and the epic burning of Hopper works by Jo/Hedda (a la Manderley at the end of Hitchcock's "Rebecca") who feels that works showing her "posed like a two-bit stripper" would damage her moral standing. Fittingly, the 90-minute chamber work closes with an end card ("The End") that evokes Looney Tunes.

Mitisek and his production team--video and scenic designer Sean Cawelti (recalling Hopper's work), costume designer Ildiko Debreczeni (all those hats for Hedda!) and lighting designer Susan Roth--manage to make the quickly moving scenes shift smoothly, from Cape Cod to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA and back again. It was unfortunate that, along the way, it was decided not to incorporate titles into the setting, because some of the text was lost in the acoustics of the Harlem Stage Gatehouse theatre (which also caused some balance problems with the orchestra).

Wallace has written for an unusual trio of voices--two mezzos and a baritone. Mezzo Elise Quagliata had the title role in the piece, in a totally go-for-broke performance. The role is a showcase for a high-energy singing actor and she excelled at both sides, bringing out the ugliness and comedy of the piece with her wonderfully earthy voice. (It was no surprise to read that she's a well-traveled Carmen.)

As the gloomy, low-key Hopper, baritone Justin Ryan had some of the most dramatic moments in Wallace's music and his evocative suicide in Truro on Cape Cod was thrillingly executed. As the third side of the triangle, mezzo Melanie Long made a sultry Ava, contending with some of the score's most difficult music and doing it smoothly. She was also totally unself-conscious as she sang in two scenes while posing nude for Hopper and Jo.

It has taken HOPPER'S WIFE nearly 20 years to journey from California, where it had its premiere, to New York. It may have lost some of the shock value in the meantime--nudity and more are, after all, increasingly commonplace these days--but none of its ability to draw an audience into its absurdities. And in our current political climate, this tale of reinventing oneself for venal personal ends seems more timely than ever.


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