February 23, 2009

A Fairy Tale Production: Opera at Ithaca College

Print More

Opera inhabits the larger-than-life world of illusion and fairy-tale; we go expecting sheer fantasias of darkling grandeurs and flights of lovelorn paroxysms. But like Freudian dreamwork, the experience of opera-going may not be to elude reality so much as to enable us to digest the unforetold consequences of a reality that has leached into the mythic shapes of our shadowy under-thoughts.
Ithaca College has chosen two early twentieth century operettas based on fairy-tales for its annual opera production, Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon and Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilges. The two productions on the bill, however, could not be more different.
Cendrillon is a stripped-down retelling of the Cinderella story, snarkily played so as to induce snickers at its characters’ overblown pretentions. L’Enfant, on the other hand, is a stunning spectacle of nightmarish glee, in the mode of Edward Gorey or Tim Burton.
Director David Lefkowich has chosen to excise large portions of Cendrillon and add the patter of English dialogue spoken in a nauseating faux-French accent, making the already barebones chamber work feel flimsy. The only instrumental accompaniment to the singers comes from a grand piano that’s center stage, which leaves little room for the actors who sit on the side when they’re not involved directly in the action. It’s as if the text were disemboweled, leaving the schematic skeleton of the operetta to hang some tinsel-thin jokes upon.
The step-sisters are little more than second-rate bitchy-ditzy gossip girls while Cinderella herself never even manages to wear a stunning gown. Instead, a chintzy veil is flung over her dress. Perhaps this stands in for how the production asks us to see through the very magic that it portends to create. Only Tina Boosahda, playing the fairy godmother as a show-stopping diva, offers a moment of magic as she sings an aria during her entry, draped in fog and mist.
L’Enfant, by contrast, ensorcells one throughout with its surreal costumes and German Expressionist set design. A young naughty boy, cooped up in his room to study by his mother, has a fit of rage in which he breaks his chair, destroys the grandfather clock, pulls the cat’s tail, and rips up his books. All these items then proceed to come alive to taunt and haunt him until he finds himself in a sinister, enchanted forest where he must learn to bandage the wounds of his anger. Spindly black-suited creatures stalk around on stilts, a bat swoops from the rafters, and a creepy, stage-filling coven of dancers buzz and swarm around the boy.
The score accentuates the winds and brass, with different instruments used as motifs: the trumpets grunt for a chorus of frogs, a flute trills for a damselfly, and the oboes and bassoons burble during a scene with walking furniture. Musically, one of the best vignettes is when the grandfather clock wags his bent-up pendulum, repeating “ding” to a crescendo of increasingly shriller orchestral accents.
After watching both shows, one comes away with a sense of opera as a realm in which one can exist in suspended animation, reclaiming the lost pity and terror of adolescence. Adulthood is unveiled more accurately through the eyes — and ears — of children who stand on its periphery since they are still capable of recognizing life’s quixotic tawdriness and looming wonder.