scheming: (l-r) Flanigan and Lauren Skuce in Regina.
Bring This Back?
Theater, Bard College, July 29
Bard’s Summerscape series is honoring Aaron Copland, so it’s
a little weird that Copland’s opera The Tender Land
is being given a chamber treatment in the Fisher Center’s
small theater, while the banner production of the summer is
Marc Blitztein’s Regina, a long, problematic 1949 opera
based on Lillian
The Little Foxes. Blitzstein was a lesser-known contemporary
of Copland’s and shared Copland’s leftist views for which
both drew heat from the McCarthy Committee in the early ’50s.
For starters, operatic singing and understandable diction
appear to be natural enemies, particularly in upper- register
singing. Even though the libretto was in English, the singers
rendered the vast majority of the action utterly incomprehensible,
and there were no super-titles to relieve the frustration.
And while a small part of the dialogue was spoken, most of
it was half sung, in that tuneless singing-talk style (there
were few, if any, memorable arias). This device is delightful
when practiced by a good cantor in a temple. Elsewhere, however,
it ranks second only to the bass solo at a metal show as the
most annoying musical mannerism ever created, especially when
the listener is straining to clue in to the narrative of a
three-hour play, and failing.
Secondly, this play is essentially a Southern parlor drama
about perpetually drunk über-white folks in a crumbling mansion,
circa 1900, screwing each other over for money. The black
“help” gets two short featured scenes in the play, essentially
minstrel-show ragtime song-and-dance numbers that, while providing
much-needed vitality to the evening, were borderline embarrassing.
Throughout the rest of the play, black actors mostly stood
in the shadows, often holding musical instruments, watching
the pathetic machinations of the principal actors in expressionless
silence. Whatever these minor characters were thinking would
have been more interesting than the bland backstabbing occurring
on center stage. Whatever the black actors were in fact thinking
about their roles must have been more interesting than that.
Marquee soprano Lauren Flanigan brought little to her title
role, where a little joyous devilishness in her duplicity
would have created depth to her character. As it was, she
was just bland and unsympathetic. Stephen West, as Regina’s
ailing husband Oscar, conveyed deep emotion, his remarkable
bass was thrilling, and his diction perfectly understandable.
Marc Embree, as Regina’s oafish brother Ben, also lit up several
scenes with his vaguely W.C. Fields-like behavior.
On the bright side, the set, by noted installation artist
Judy Pfaff, was remarkable, a three-story-high affair that
perfectly captured the crumbling South’s faded decadence,
and provided shifting and exciting stagings for the various
scenes. If only the rest of the production had aspired to