It is easy to see why Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina” is rarely performed. It’s a demanding work that tackles issues of greed, race relations and other seedy elements of humanity head-on while fusing many musical styles that make it hard to characterize.
Because there are so many elements to this opera that includes 10 major characters, it is difficult to mount and probably not suited for many companies. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, however, has earned a well-deserved reputation of tackling such challenges so it is no surprise that its company debut of “Regina” can be considered nothing less than an unqualified success.
Embodying the Composer’s Ideals
Blitzstein had a fascinating musical background. The composer studied in Europe with Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger and was a contemporary and good friend of Leonard Bernstein. Most notably, he was an unabashed Communist whose life tragically ended when he was murdered at the age of 58 with several projects unfinished.
It is Blitzstein’s politics that serve as the template for “Regina,” based on the Lillian Hellman play “The Little Foxes” – best known for the movie version starring Bette Davis. His opera premiered on Broadway in 1949, and many aspects of the work, including the dialogue, have been reworked in various productions since.
The story centers on the title character, Regina Giddens, and her brothers Oscar and Ben. There is little sense of family, however, with this trio whose dealings are strictly business – and shady business at that. The setting is Alabama in 1900 with the aristocratic South giving way to one that is a product of capitalism, with black servants at the beck and call of the Giddens clan.
The St. Louis version, under the direction of James Robinson, is loosely based on a 1991 Scottish Opera version. Delicate handling of the racially charged themes that serve this production well; race is always present but is rather intertwined with the ideas of exploitation by business owners as opposed to shrouding them.
Graham Leads the Luxury Casting
Part of the greatness of this work is how all of the characters have their moments in this opera. Yet the foursome of Regina, her brothers, and Oscar’s wife Birdie are the most important, and these roles have been cast superbly starting with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, employing a Southern accent to good effect in the title role.
Graham’s performance alone would be reason enough to attend. The character of Regina is the embodiment of all of Blitzstein’s themes and Graham is extraordinary in a multi-faceted portrayal of a woman who is manipulative to the fullest degree.
Regina’s avarice comes shining through in her showpiece Act one aria “The Best Thing of All” which is delivered with spicy disdain. Her controlling nature is shown in obvious fashion by Graham during her shabby treatment of husband Horace and also more subtly by how she races up and down the staircase at the start of Act two because she must always have the last word. Graham’s Regina may be the best individual performance at OTSL in recent years.
Phillips An Emphatic Birdie
Brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard are played by bass-baritone James Morris and baritone Ron Raines, respectively. The story goes that the great Morris signed on to add a St. Louis debut to his lengthy resume after arriving in town for a master class a few years ago, and it says a lot for this production when a star like him blends in almost as an afterthought. Raines is known more for acting and musical theater although his operatic background already included OTSL. Their machinations between each other and with Regina were spot-on.
The soprano Susanna Phillips is used to performing in much bigger houses and found the more intimate setting in St. Louis ideal to showcasing her talents as Birdie. Her rendition of “Music, music, music” in Act one was more subdued compared to the outpouring of emotion brought forth in her “Lionnet” aria in Act three as she laments that her marriage to Oscar was not out of love but for the estate pictured on the painting at the back of the clever set designed by Allen Moyer.
The Rest Is Top-Notch
The genius of this production was that the audience not only got a feel for the aforementioned main characters but the others as well. Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter sounded like a deep bass as Horace, the dying husband of Regina. The mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson sang the contralto role as the loyal housekeeper Addie, deftly displaying hints of the racism present.
Perhaps the best musical moment of the night was when Irmiter, Phillips, Wilson, and the excellent Monica Dewey as Alexandra combined for the Act 3 “Rain Quartet.” The soprano Dewey was luminous in her Act one aria “What will it be for me?” and her character’s resolve in walking out on Regina in the finale brought the drama to its climax. Baritone Justin Austin as the sage Cal and tenor Michael Day as the sneering Leo were memorable in their smaller parts.
Making the Case for “Regina”
Where “Regina” ranks among American operas is up for debate but this OTSL production makes a case for inclusion near the top. Moyer’s scenery brings the South alive and James Schuette’s costumes add to that regional flavor.
Conductor Stephen Lord is masterful at negotiating the various musical styles employed by Blitzstein that include gospel, jazz, blues, and ragtime. The decision to mic the spoken dialogue helped make the plot coherent. The cast led by Graham was about as perfect as could be while Blitzstein’s ideas of economic inequality resonate nearly 70 years later. Anyone fortunate to have seen this “Regina” at OTSL simply experienced magic.