BWW Reviews: An Unrivaled Performance from the Bronx Opera

BWW Reviews: An Unrivaled Performance from the Bronx Opera

If your musical taste runs to Elliott Carter--or even Nico Muhly, whose TWO BOYS premiered at the Met this fall--then Kirke Mechem's THE RIVALS, which had its NY premiere this month at the Bronx Opera Company, may not be your cup of tea. But for a rollicking good time, this operatic adaptation of the great Restoration comedy of the same name by Richard Brinsley Sheridan has few rivals among its contemporaries.

Inspired by Mozart and Rossini

The Wichita-born Mechem was clearly inspired by the comic operas of Mozart and, especially, Rossini. Determined to write an American piece, he transposed the setting from Bath, England, to the gold coast of Newport, Rhode Island, at the turn of the century, where a cast of poseurs, pretenders and social climbers would feel at home.

It works surprisingly well. I say "surprisingly," because the play is sheer farce and calls for split-second timing, which is not necessarily the calling card of the opera world, where tears more often than not are the bitcoin of the realm, unless you look to the denizens of Rossini's most famous buffa pieces. And the composer has.

Although Mechem used a variety of musical American styles--ragtime, Broadway, e.g.--in the course of the piece, this is definitely an opera, filled with charming and comic ensembles and arias of every sort, short of a mad scene. The composer has done a marvelous job in both the music and libretto telling the story of...--well, the plot's not the thing but how it's put across and the details, frankly, make it sound less than it is.

A household name

While the source material may not be a household name, one of its major characters most certainly is: Mrs. Malaprop has passed into the language as someone who is an expert mangler of her mother tongue. She mistakenly uses such words as "incontinence" for "inconsistency," "proposition" for "preposition" and "flatulence" for "flattery"--you get the point--to the delight of the other characters in the play, as well as the audience. Mezzo Caroline Tye made for a funny, though not ridiculous, Mrs. Malaprop, with a warm mezzo as well as the good diction that is central to the success of this role.

Although there is substantial dialogue, a la opéra comique, Mechem has managed to make the melodious score the thing, defining the characters musically even when it doesn't exactly move the plot along. I particularly liked "Simplicity [will make a millionaire of me]," delightfully performed by the "downstairs" side of Mrs. Malaprop's household, with soprano Halley Gilbert, as Lucy, the lady's maid, performing with gusto and charm.

The ensemble worked like clockwork

This cast was truly an ensemble and they worked like clockwork, under the firm leadership of the company's Artistic Director/Conductor Michael Spierman and Stage Director Benjamin Spierman. In the Spiermans' hands, the central singers and chorus moved surely through the shifting setting by Scott Aronow, with handsome costumes by Joan Greenhut and Maureen Klein, and lighting by G. Benjamin Swope.

The key pairing of soprano Julie-Anne Hamula (Lydia Larkspur, Malaprop's niece) and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco (Jack Absolute/Waverly) made the fake identity plot work, if not plausible, with strong, musically adept performances. The secondary couple, Nicholas Astor and Julia, were nicely sung by tenor Rogelio Penaverde and soprano Juli Borst, though his role was better defined. The most farcical of the characters, Baron von Hackenbock ("a fortune hunter") and Jasper Vanderbilt ("of the Kentucky Vanderbilts") were comic gems in the hands of Jack Anderson White and Erik Bagger, respectively, milked for every laugh--and they got them.

As composer Mechem approaches his 90th birthday, it's good to see the Bronx Opera giving this youngster a chance. It was a treat.

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Photo credit: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY

Center: Caroline Tye as Mrs. Malaprop.

THE RIVALS played two performances at the Lovinger Theatre, Lehman College in the Bronx, January 11-12 before moving for to the Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College in Manhattan, January 18-19, where i attended the final performance. The production featured an alternating cast.


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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.