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Poignancy and Terror in Two Premiere Operas

New York
Saratoga Springs (Spa Little Theater)
06/30/2018 -  & July 6, 14, 2018
David T. Little: Vinkensport or The Finch Opera (World premiere, Chamber Opera version)
Gareth Williams: Rocking Horse Winner (American premiere)

Vinkensport: Megan Pachecano (Farinelli’s trainer), Quinn Bernegger (Hans Sach’s Trainer), Christine Suits (Holy Saint Francis’s Trainer), John Tibbetts (Prince Gabriel III of Belgium’s Trainer’s Son), Kelly Glyptis (Sir Elton John’s Trainer), Garrett Obrycki (Atticus Finch’s trainer), Ellen Leslie (Referee, Butler)
The Rocking Horse Winner: Christine Suits (Ava), Tyler Nelson (Paul), Sean Galligan (Bassett), Scott Quinn (Oscar), Asleif Willer, Christina Scanlan, Zachary Barba, Chauncey Blade (The House)
The Opera Saratoga Orchestra, David Alan Miller (Conductor)
Michael Hidetoshi Mori (Director), Cameron Anderson (Scenic Designer), Valérie Thérèse Bart (Costume Designer), Brandon Stirling Baker (Lighting Designer)

“Haunted” house and cast of The Rocking Horse Winner
(© Samuel A. Dog)

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.
D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

D.H. Lawrence did like it hot. Whether it was eroticism or Mexican mysticism, the hard-working laborer in England or as an antediluvian critic of modernity, he never held back. And in The Rocking Horse Winner, Lawrence was both mystical and passionate, surrealistic and a fierce critic of money and greed.

But could this most piercing short story of the Yorkshire writer make an opera? It made a 1949 John Mills movie which scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid, and was faithful to the story. Yet one could not quite picture it as an opera until last night, when the Saratoga Opera Festival featured the Gareth Williams production as part of a double bill.

No matter what the production the Saratoga Opera Festival has managed to balance the daring with the conforming, and this year Lehár’s Merry Widow apparently pulled in a sellout crowd. Menotti’s The Consul–a half-century-old opera which reflects on the horrors of immigration today–might offer even more.

But the D. H.Lawrence story, twinned with the perplexingly titled Vinkensport or The Finch Opera, left many an empty seat. And the latter, while simple enough, was hardly dramatic enough to garner over-enthusiasm.

Rocking Horse Winner, though, was both chilling and gripping, though scenarist Anna Chatterton made some major changes. In the original, Ava, the mother of a small boy, yearns for more money, more and more. She is greedy and unhappy, her child will do anything to make her smile, to bring her (and I use a capital letter), Luck. Luck does come, as the boy rocks on his rocking horse and can shout out the name of a race winner, while whispers from The House plead for even more money. In time, the gardener and his uncle win money–enough to bring his mother 5,000 pounds. But even this is not good enough, and the boy rocks and rocks...until he falls dead.

The young boy of the original has now been changed into Paul, apparently an autistic young man. The whispers of The House have been changed into a quartet of whispers which go to the race-track, an event projected on all four walls of the Spa Little Theater. The gardener now takes care of the ailing young man.

Yet the major change is a fascinating operatic change. From the start, Ava is at her piano, repeating over and over and over again three dissonant chords, as she intones, “Nothing is as it should be.” The tone-clusters are obsessive, they ring through the house. And so do the haunting whispers of The House, as the spectral quartet appear behind different scrims.

The effect is haunting. And most haunting of all is the offstage orchestra, actually a string quartet and perhaps a few other instruments. They “speak” in tremolos, in solos, the music as ghostly as the emotions of the characters rise up in phantasmal pain.

From the voices and the mother, “There must be more money. There must be more.” From the man-child come pleas for his mother to smile. And then reality of sort enters. Paul’s jolly uncle pounds up the steps (the stage is on two levels) to see his nephew, and discovers that the boy is declaring winners of the race as he rocks back and forth.

Uncle and caregiver go to the race track, they win, give money to Mother Ava and she still wants more...more. And as the two men repeat “We have money, we have money,” the words are black, the happiness is the happiness of a horrible fate.

Lawrence’s story had the patina of reality. Whatever the boy was doing, the other characters seemed to have human traits, as the Uncle has here. Otherwise, composer Gareth Williams has created an opera to a story which could have come from Strindberg.

The singers here are, as in all the Saratoga Opera festivals, excellent. The Saratoga Opera Society has a marvelous year-round education alliance for young singers. And while the professionals take the star roles, the younger people add to the lesser roles with glowing tones.

Yet little was more powerful than Christine Suits as Ava, the Mother. Another singer might have made her pleas almost into whines. But this splendid soprano has such a gorgeous voice that the emotional pull blends seamlessly with the operatic challenges. Tyler Nelson as the man-boy has the difficult role of being seemingly autistic, yet filled with overwhelming feeling, with a fixation–partly medical, partly filial, partly operatic–to give his mother happiness. And he fulfills it well, as do the two men of the opera.

Yet at the end, one thinks of those four voices and their close ghostly harmonies, We should not see them at all, but we do. And hear them as the ghosts of that most ghostly House.

Ironically, Gareth Williams’ dramatic and operatic skills mirror those of next week’s opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul. The harmonies are conservative, the vocal lines almost give way to arias–and the constant calls from Paul to “Mother, mother”, are those from Menotti’s The Medium. And comparing him to Menotti is meant as sheer compliment, for both composer build and generate their effects with the greatest skills.

Set and cast of The Finch Opera (© Samuel A. Dog)

The opener last night, The Finch Opera, is clever enough, though the setting demands more of the exotic. It takes six “finch-watchers”, in an ancient Flemish game where they wait to see which bird either chirps first or more beautifully or...well, something.

I couldn’t quite get it, though one thought not of the opera but Chorus Line, since each character had a story to tell. One was a fraud. Megan Pachecano’s bird “Farinelli” (the legendary castrato) had died, so she used a recording. Kelly Glyptis’ bird “Sir Elton John:” was alive, but she thinks only of drink and sex. And so on and so on.

The music was emotional, the chamber opera beautifully conducted by David Allen Miller, who I had raved about when he brought the Albany Symphony down to Carnegie Hall seven years ago. Yet something was cold, stylized, perhaps too consciously clever in the writing.

Fortunately, as the bird-watchers disappeared, the final aria, sung by the lonely Garrett Obrycki to his bird Atticus Finch, is a blessing by composer David T. Little. The piece is poignant, telling, one never dis-believes the affection of man for bird. Mr. Obrycki sung it with such conviction, and his loneliness and final sacrifice are so poignant that these few finishing moments gave value to the entire production.

Harry Rolnick



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