At the turn of the 20th century, Victor Herbert was widely regarded as a major composer making his mark with dozens and dozens of operettas. But the last century hasn’t always been kind to the Irish-American composer, many of his works getting largely ignored in the opera world.
But for the last few years, the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE! (VHRP LIVE) has been doing its utmost in reviving the composer to his status as a king of English-language operatic repertoire. Putting on semi-staged versions of his works, the company has slowly grown, taking a major step in its development this Tuesday with a staging of “Eileen.”
The late work, set in 1798 and boasting pro-Irish patriotism at nearly every turn, featured, for the first time in VHRP LIVE’s history, an orchestra. Prior to the performance, artistic director Alyce Mott noted that the group was made up of a handful of players but that the plan was to grow it year by year until it fulfilled the composer’s original plans.
Small But Mighty
Led by conductor Michael Thomas, the ensemble seemed right at home in the small venue set up at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on West 69th Street. They might have been small, but as Mott noted the sound was “mighty.” The beauty of a small chamber sound such as this one is that each instrumentalist truly got to shine throughout, their individual colors adding to the intimacy of the drama, without ever sacrificing the sense of scale when the composer called for it in the major patriotic hymns. What you also start to realize from this smaller group is just how rich Herbert’s orchestration is, no instrument given prominence over the other, each one getting individual moments to truly shine.
Detailed Direction Makes For Strong Dramatic Pulse
The operetta itself was semi-staged, but the rigorous direction and choreography implemented smoothed over any potential pitfalls that a lack of scenery can bring with it. Performers rarely just stood around and sang, but instead, viewers could delight in fully choreographed numbers. One particular highlight saw a group of young men, led by protagonist Barry O’Day and his frenemy Sean Regan dancing in Irish style about as they pledged allegiance to the Irish rebellion. Later on, some sword play was enacted at the climax before the company threw together one final dance number after taking individual bows.
Costumes, while admittedly not from 1798, also carried dramatic weight with them. Lady Maude’s elegant green gown not only dominates from the outset, establishing her prominence, but its choice of color also hints at her political leanings. Juxtapose this with Colonel Lester and Sir Reginald Stribling, both important Brits, clothed in elegant dark suits that emphasize British rigidity. Eileen spends most of the night in a white and pink gown that expresses her youthful and vulnerable nature while O’Day spends most of his night wearing an imposing red vest that exposes his heroic status but also reminds the viewer that he is a target for the British.
The level of detail extends to other choices, including the decision to have all the actors work in Irish and British accents.
As for the artists themselves, they packed a solid punch throughout.
Two Vibrant Leading Ladies
The operetta may be titled “Eileen,” but it might as well go by the name “Lady Maude,” because she is the true heroine of the piece. Not only does she kick off the narration, constantly guiding the viewer through the piece, but she is the work’s most active character, dodging advances from numerous suitors while proving to be the incoming Irish rebellion’s strongest ally. Canadian Soprano Tanya Roberts embodied the character and all her complexity quite wonderfully in arguably the standout performance of the night. Moving about with poise and elegance, she always demanded the viewers’ attention. Whether flirtatious with O’Day or stalwart with Lester, she constantly left the viewer wondering about her next step and yet giving you the security that she knew exactly what to do. And that was especially true of her singing, which was the most mature and vibrant amongst a strong cast. Maude spends the early going without singing a note, but when Roberts finally got the opportunity during “When Love Awakes,” her voice soared into the soprano stratosphere with a tremendous sense of poise and prowess that defined the character. But her shining moment may have been the ensemble “True Sons of Erin,” where her voice initially delicate and tender before carrying through the massive choral sounds around her.
In the title role of Eileen Mulvaney, Joanie Brittingham slowly grew into the role. Brittingham’s best singing came during the two love duets as she combined a sense of tenderness with firmness. Eileen might be more of a damsel-in-distress at times, but Brittingham was adamant in imbuing her with a strength and resistance. Her characterization overall added a nice counterpoint to Roberts’ Maude. Where one oozed confidence from the get-go, the other slowly developed it.
The Dashing, Yet Complex, Hero
Tenor Tom Carle was a potent Barry O’Day, playing up his tremendous enthusiasm with a massive smile and bright, powerful voice. In Carle’s interpretation, there was simply nothing this hero couldn’t do. From wooing any woman he pleased, to dancing about his comrades to dominating in a duel to singing luxurious phrases with beaming high notes, Carle looked unstoppable throughout the evening. And yet, his O’Day didn’t always come off as the proverbial knight in shining armor. In fact, early on he exhibited brashness and a general lack of gentility that made him more antagonistic unto the pleas of Eileen. His “When Shall I Again See Ireland,” while melancholic and longing, Carle’s voice growing more opulent and powerful with each phrase, there was an impetuosity in the interpretation that didn’t immediately endear us to the character. Subsequent scenes see him manipulate further and it isn’t really until the second act that he starts to win us over. His “Eileen!” was a massive contrast to his first aria “When Shall I Again See Ireland” in this regard. Where the first had forward drive, the latter had a more relaxed quality, the tenor sculpting each phrase with greater care and sweetness. The overall positioning of this arc added a layer of complexity to the drama.
Strong Support All Around
In the supporting role of Colonel Lester, Richard Holmes was an imposing figure though he proved more than just a boisterous walk. His flirtations with Maude brimmed with wit and class, a rather charming juxtaposition with the more awkward advances of David Seatter’s Stribling. As Sean Regan, Jovani McCleary expressed a more animalistic quality, his baritone aggressive and his overall body language hinting at his violent potential.
The chorus was quite splendid throughout the night. Only featuring a handful of singers, it sounded a lot larger than it truly was. A few members got the chances to sing some solos, all of them handling the honors quite beautifully, but one singer, Christopher Robin Sapp, nearly stole the show with his “She’s Sweet As Any Flower.” Employing a sliver of sound for this sublime poem of a piece, the tenor caressed each phrase, his climax in a disembodied head voice. It might have been the finest musical moment in an evening full of them.
The evening moved at a relentless pace, showcasing Herbert’s musical genius and seemingly unstoppable ability to concoct one glorious melody after another. The Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE!, with a clear enthusiasm for the composer’s work, and strong and detailed execution, looks to be a company to keep an eye out for.