Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nabucco and My Fair Lady, Apples and Oranges

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Two unrelated yet connected events Saturday. Both involve the voice.

Nabucco Live in HD

Jamie Barton as Fenena
Photo by Marty Sohe
I went to the Mission Valley Cinema 20 Saturday, Jan. 7 to see the Met Live in HD transmission of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1841 opera, Nabucco, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera house. My purpose was to see and hear mezzo soprano Jamie Barton make her Live in HD debut in the role of Fenena, the good sister in the Biblical tale of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (libretto by Temistocle Solera), the Jews, the Babylonians and Abigaille, the usurper of Nebuchadnezzar’s crown and supposedly Fenena’s half sister.

Placido Domingo as Nabucco
Photo by Marty Sohe

Renowned tenor/opera impresario-turned-baritone Placid DomingoNewkt Sohe sang the baritone role of Nebuchadnezzar, formidable soprano Liudmyla Monsastryrska portrayed Abigaille, and James Levine conducted. The opera was performed upon John Napier’s circa 15-year old monster, multi-level set, which revolves – Jerusalem on one side, Babylon on the other. The exceptionally unflattering costumes are by Andreane Neofitou; but I attended for the score, the glorious singing and the spectacle and was amply rewarded. As they left, many patrons swore it was the best Live in HD production they’d seen since the enterprise began in December 2006. Hard to believe it’s been that long.

As you likely know, unamplified opera singers are able to fill huge halls like the Metropolitan Opera and the 3,000-seat Civic Theatre where San Diego Opera performs. They have a special technique and way of projecting it.

My Fair Lady at Welk Resort Theatre

A nap restored me, friends kidnapped me and took me to Welk Resort Theatre, where we had dinner and saw Welk’s production of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady, based upon George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Who can forget the original with Rex Harrison as linguistics expert Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza, the Cockney flower girl he transforms into a lady? Or for that matter, who hasn’t experienced the 1964 Film, in which Andrews was replaced (outrageously) by Audrey Hepburn, whose vocals were provided by Marni Nixon). In the long run the slight didn’t affect Andrews’ career.

Ralph Johnson as Pickering and Lance Arthur  Smith as Higgins
Photo by Ken Jacques

At the Welk, Kathy Brombacher directs a fine company headed by Lance Arthur Smith as Higgins. Others are Shaina Knox as Eliza; Randall Hickman in fine fettle as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle; Ralph Johnson as Higgins’ kindly friend, Pickering; Susan Boland as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper; and M. Susan Peck, ultra-effective as Henry’s mother.
Randall Hickman as Alfred P. Dooittle
Photo by Kan Jacques
Shaina Knox as Eliza, Lance Arthur Smith as Higgins
and M. Susan Peck as Mrs. Higgins
Photo by Ken Jacques

I suppose it’s apples and oranges to compare musical theatre vocal production in 1956 and 2016, and to compare vocal production for musical theatre and for grand opera, but the gap seems even wider than ever before, belting aside (blessedly there is no belting in Welk’s My Fair Lady). So there’s no not mentioning it.

Harrison did not sing his role in My Fair Lady – could not sing – but no one cared. He rather talked his way through the songs and was a most imperious Higgins.  In the Welk production, Smith sings (as Sean Murray did two years ago at Cygnet),  and Smith’s is a grand interpretation of Higgins, who is relentless but not to the point of cruelty in his demands upon Eliza.

The singing of Knox as Eliza brings me up short. This young woman has excellent credits and is a good actress. Before Eliza begins her transformation Knox’s voice fully embraces the Cockney accent, as it must. In the initial scenes, I found her the combination of her vocal production and her Cockney vowels unendurable, but told myself that as soon as she began her transformation she would add some vibrato and perhaps even a modicum of beauty. Wrong. This made it exceptionally challenging to warm to her character.

The other vocal performance that set me on edge was that of handsome Ben Williams as Freddy, the young aristocrat who sings “On the Street Where You Live.” Williams has the potential vocal goods for the part and sings pleasantly, but not as if he truly loves the music or the sound he is making. Then again, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a truly satisfying Freddy. It’s plainly an unforgiving role.

I did enjoy the supporting players, Cockney types who transform into Ascot aristocrats and back, assisted by Janet Pitcher’s costumes, Orlando Alexander’s choreography, and Justin Gray’s fine four-piece orchestra. Who could resist the score, which includes “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Just You Wait,” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”? And that’s just the first act! Add to these and their Act II reprises “Show Me,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and you have one of the great, classic American musicals.

I’m just spoiled, expecting quality vocal production from young performers in present day Southern California; however, don’t stay away from My Fair Lady on that account. There is plenty to love here through April 2.

Welk Resort Theatre is located at 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido. https://welkresorts.com/san-diego/theatre/

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