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BWW Review: Stephanie Blythe is Blythely Oratonio in BLYTHELY EVER AFTER at Lincoln Center's American Songbook at The Appel Room

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BWW Review: Stephanie Blythe is Blythely Oratonio in BLYTHELY EVER AFTER at Lincoln Center's American Songbook at The Appel Room

"What the world needs now, more than anything, is another tenor."

Strutting to the stage of Jazz at Lincoln Center - so speaks the 'Man, the Myth and the Messenger' that IS that supremo divo of plumage and pomp, Blythely Oratonio.

Bearded, bejeweled, and ready for battle in a Trojan headdress, it's patently clear from his first entrance that Oratonio, in his first American Songbook appearance, like the best of all opera heroes (and antiheroes) will take no prisoners. But lest we forget, tenors are also sensitive, fragile creatures; the inflated symbol of importance in an art form steeped in such an antiquity of tradition, it's continually pegged as a likely candidate for extinction.

That excess melded with rueful introspection is the inspired starting point for BLYTHELY EVER AFTER, a shrewd and musically stirring concoction conceived by John Jarboe and Blythely Oratonio's alter-ego, the sonsie (and sensational) Mezzo-soprano, Stephanie Blythe.

Blythe, who - as a woman- has captivated the world's leading opera stages, and been a long time fixture at the Metropolitan Opera as one of its most stalwart divas here is, quite literally, taking on a 'trouser role' of her own most fantasmic creation.

Such a presentation, at first blush, might be the kind of grand and over the top drag exploitation, you'd expect from (at best) The Box or (at worst) America's Got Talent. Oratonio, with his band "The Fluffers," merges expected mind-bending classical vocals with (what's become rather boilerplate) anachronous cross over pop anthems likely on heavy rotation at your local karaoke bar. Imagine Pavoratti doing Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" as a Mozartian baroque and you get the idea of the musical vocabulary and running gag of the evening.

Throw in a mash-up of "La donna è mobile," The Cure's "Friday, I'm in Love," and (the inevitable) "Nessun Dorma," and it would be easy to call it a night.

But as it turns out, in his promise to offer the 'familiar but the blissfully odd," the character Oratonio in his beatific ignorant, pre #metoo machismo more pointedly provides Blythe with the keen and often hilarious mouthpiece for clandestine female observation. And at that convergence of binary cross identification, the excess of opera becomes homogeneous, fluid and inevitably relevant. And of course, clear that it has rather been that way from the very beginning. The feminine profusion of Rigoletto. The masculine power of the Valkyries. Lined up in a row on the stage of La Scala, it's not hard to imagine throwing a stone down the timeline and hitting the gender-bending gilt (or QUEEN) of glam rock.

Weaving this idea into a 75-minute multi-genre musical journey with the 'tender-testosterone filled' Blythely Oratonio character at the heart, it's a colorful and theatrical parallel that director Jarboe seizes - sometimes to mixed results. Though silver-haired and amicably philosophical in his truth and glitter brained presence, Oratonio's supporting ensemble seem less consistent. The gorgeous voiced, Hailey McAvoy and Margaret Tigue, arriving as a literal flower delivery, singing, what else, the infamous "Sous le dôme épais (The Flower Duet)" from Lakmé provide camp and vocal heft, but Oratonio's 'birdies' - the non-gender conforming Messapotamia Lefae and Sav Souza seem like decorative afterthoughts rather than narrative or thematic essentials.

In the conceit's best moments, Blythe uses Oratonio's bravado naivete to hold up a knowing mirror of self-exploration. "'Where can I find a woman like that?" Springsteen's refrain echoes, and Blythe, herself one of the great operatic finds of the first years of the 21st century, now fifty and facing the career (and vocal shifts) that come with the transition of time, through Oratonio seems to be similarly looking for recalibration.

Drawing on childhood memories (that closely match Blythe's own upbringing) Oratonio revels in a renegade, rebellious spirit; an overt rockstar, when for the similarly full-figured Blythe, opera was initially a merely socially acceptable shield. Here, center stage and on personal terms, BLYTHELY EVER AFTER offers Blythe a celebratory break free from the confines of tradition and into the irreverent dreams of adolescence.

But even in such moments of midlife breakthrough - Blythe is understanding that our most common human denominator - be we rockstar, opera impresario ("carrying an expiring maid while singing a high D") or adoring audience member is the universal quandary of mundanity, and like art itself, really a question and search for continued relevance. Disclosing the intimate confessions of the singer: coaching a student on an aria in a role you no longer sing well or belting David Bowie's "Changes," whilst putting on makeup and (literally) confronting how you've changed invariably resonate. As Oratonio wisely expounds - if you're a success you find yourself facing not only the ghost of everyone who has ever sung before you - but also the ghost of yourself - who you used to be - how you used to sound. Where could all the recitative possibly lead?

While BLYTHELY EVER AFTER is in performance at least, where it mostly leads to is a lot of fun and musical virtuosity. In lesser hands, an evening of a mezzo-soprano wailing in tenor keys might make for simply a clever parlor trick, but Blythe's skills ensure the vocals are mostly stunning (though by the end of Thursday evening's performance, it must be noted, the total effect seemed to have ensued some fatigue - an encore of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" sounded strained).

But for Blythely Oratonio (and Stephanie Blythe) the negotiation of pop culture, gender, and artistic re-invention is mostly a journey of communal love. Closing with the ultimate crowd-pleaser, "We Are the Champions" (in Italian, natch) together, with them, thou and us, they prove that however mournful the change, remembering what's gained is the ultimate music and the ultimate magic. And that is a high note indeed.

Stephanie Blythe is Blythely Oratonio in BLYTHELY EVER AFTER at Lincoln Center's American Songbook. With Messapotamia Lefae and Sav Souza (Birdies) and Hailey McAvoy and Margaret Tigue (Flowers).

John Jarboe, Co-Writer and Director; Arrangements by Daniel Kazemi; costumes by Machine Dazzle with Rebecca Kanach; featuring Blythely Oratnio's band, The Fluffers: Drew Wutke, Piano, Musical Director, Lead Fluffer; Jimmy Coleman, Drums; Mike Ian, Guitar; Andrew Nelson, Bass.

Photo credit: Steve Pisano and Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

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From This Author Brady Schwind