Wexford Festival Opera 2018 Review: Bernstein à La Carte
A Delightful Celebration Of the Master’s CentennialBy Alan Neilson
One of the many events that makes Wexford Festival Opera such a unique experience is the afternoon presentations of “Opera Shorts.” Normally, these are piano reductions of well-known operas, but recently they have started to broaden their scope. Last year’s festival successfully premiered a new opera, “The Dubliners” by Andrew Synnott, based on two of the short stories from James Joyce’s famous book.
This year the festival presented a stage work, written to celebrate the life and music of one of America’s greatest musicians, Leonard Bernstein, called “Bernstein à la Carte.”
Seven singers gather for a birthday celebration for Bernstein, but unfortunately, he is late. Sitting around waiting, and a little bored, they decide to pass the time by singing songs and ensemble pieces from his opera, “Candide” his Broadway musicals, “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” “Wonderful Town” as well as from two of his song cycles, “I Hate Music” and “La Bonne Cuisine.” They also read extracts from some of his letters.
The colorfully lit stage was simply set out with chairs, a couple of couches, worktops, and tables. At the back of the stage was a large television screen, which displayed the title of the piece being performed. Angela Giulia Toso, responsible for the scenography, also designed the costumes, which were simple, but boldly colored. Occasional props were wheeled on and off the set as needed. The cast, directed by Roberto Recchia, acted out each of the songs in typical Broadway fashion, with huge dollops of humor. The music was supplied by the excellent Tina Chang on the piano. It was all brilliantly done and hugely entertaining.
All the cast produced energetic and convincing performances. The ensembles were really colorful and lively. “Ya got me” from “On the Town” was sung with brio, and imaginatively choreographed, the cast fully engaged, and included amusing contributions from Gemma Summerfield on the wooden spoons and Jevan McAuley on the bongos. The final ensemble, “Wrong Note Rag,” from “Wonderful Town,” which brought the show to an end, summed up their spirited, enthusiastic approach; the singing was lively, their faces smiling and the choreography eye-catching.
Making the Most of It
The individual singers were also given ample opportunities to show off their talent in solo pieces and duets. The three female singers, in particular, all made excellent impressions. The mezzo-soprano, Rosemary Clifford, dominated her role, managing a perfectly articulated New York drawl in her duet, “Come up to my Place” from “On the Town,” with the bass, Jevan McAuley. It was arguably the most entertaining piece of the afternoon, brilliantly capturing the comedy of the situation. Sitting next to each other, they bounced up and down, as they drove through the New York streets in a taxi. Clifford, as the erratic taxi driver, with only a driving wheel as a prop, was superb as she pressurized McAuley to come up to her place. Both singers used their voices to characterize their roles with style and skill. In “Some other time,” also from “On the Town,” Clifford showed a softer side to her singing in a poignantly delivered rendition, in which she displayed her rich array of vocal colors and wonderful articulation. Throughout the show, she was able to command the attention of the audience with her natural stage presence, and excellent acting ability.
The Irish soprano, Emma Nash, was equally impressive, and also appears to have a natural gift for comedy, with a strong stage personality. In “Rabbit at Top Speed” from “La Bonne Cuisine” she accented her vocal line with skill and inflected the voice with heavy irony as she ripped the rabbit to pieces. Nash possesses a pleasing soprano and is able to churn out piercing high notes with ease. Her coloratura in “Glitter and be Gay,” from “Candide” was very impressive, displaying precision and a pleasing tonal quality.
Gemma Summerfield, the British soprano, displayed good vocal control in “Plum Pudding” from “La Bonne Cuisine,” coping admirably with the required quick-fire patter, which she delivered with clarity and drive. “I can cook too” from “On the Town” was sung well, but required a little more raunchiness and swagger to fully convince. Her essaying of “I hate music” showed off her vocal strength, versatility and colorful pallet.
The tenor, James Liu, who was unwell, sang within himself, but still managed to make a good impression. “Oxtail soup” from “La Bonne Cuisine” and his ensemble parts were all well-delivered, but “Maria,” from “West Side Story,” did not possess the beautiful lyricism, nor the earnest longing that defines the song. His acting also lacked a little energy, but no doubt a fully healthy Liu would have overcome these shortcomings.
Ranald McCusker, tenor, dressed in a Spanish hat and waistcoat, played his part well in the ensemble piece “I’m easily assimilated” from “Candide,” and gave a solid performance of “I am person too” from “I hate music.”
Owain Browne was very effective in the ensemble pieces, especially in “Ya got me” and “I’m easily assimilated,” in which his warm bass-baritone blended beautifully, and in which he displayed an excellent ability to characterize the various roles, showing a particular skill for comedy.
All in all, this was nicely put together compilation of some of Bernstein’s vocal pieces, held together by light, snappy and amusing dialogue. The readings of extracts from his letters also gave interesting insights into his character, his relationship with his wife, after he had just married, and about his work; asked about how one can achieve great things, and he should know the answer if anyone does, Bernstein wrote, “…two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”