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All the Whirl Is Bea Goodwin’s Stage

New York
La Mama Theater
08/16/2019 -  & August 18, 20, 22, 24, 2019
Whitney George: Princess Maleine (World Premiere)
Elyse Kakacek (Princess Maleine of Harlingen), Nicholle Bittlingmayer (Aleta, Maleine’s Lady-in-waiting), Kristina Malinauskaite (Queen Godelive of Harlingen), Jonathan Harris (King Marcellus of Harlingen), Gabriel Hernandez (Vanox, a guard), Lidell Shane Brown (Stephano, a guard), Jeremy Brauner (Prince Hjalmar of Ysselmonde), Shane Brown (Angus, Prince Hjalmar’s confidant), Eric Lindsey (King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde), Jeffrey Mandelbaum (The Fool), Krisina Malinauskaite (Nurse), Liz Bouk (Queen Anne of Jutland), Megan Vanacore (Petit Allan, Queen Anne’s son), MaKayla McDonald (Princess Ursula of Jutland), Marquez Hollie (Doctor), Jessica Harika (Town Drunk), Anna Woiwood (Tavern Maid), Jonathan Harris (Pluto Puppeteer), Jessica Harika, Andrea Howland, Melyn Saenz, Anna Woiwood (Nuns), Ensemble (Villagers, Pub Patrons, and Assorted Nobles)
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, Whitney George (Conductor)
Bea Goodwin (Stage Director), Lauren Hlubny (Choreographer & Assistant Stage Director), Joo Hyn Kim (Scenic Designer), Claire Townsend (Costume Designer),Dante Olivia Smith (Lighting Designer)

W.George, B.Goodwin & ensemble (© Samuel A.Dog)

Quand nous perdons un être aimé, ce qui nous fait pleurer les larmes qui ne soulagent point, c’est le souvenir des moments où nous ne l’avons pas assez aimé.” (“When we lose one we love, our bitterest tears are called forth by the memory of hours when we loved not enough.”)
Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949)

Anna Russell, that extraordinary scholarly parodist of Grand Opera, was once asked by this writer if she actually disliked any opera. “Oh yes,” she said, “Pelléas et Mélisande. Nothing happens! What does Mélisande do? She stands around for two hours singing about a damned ring. Why doesn’t she do something useful, like going into a kitchen and baking some croissants or something?”

Static inaction could hardly describe the moving and gorgeous production of another Maurice Maeterlinck poetic drama, Princess Maleine.

That was actually improbable. The large stage at La Mama Theater had the background of a single large screen, and a minimum of props–some trees, a few tables, a gravestone. Add to this a story filled with endless unpronounceable names (see cast list above if you dare), and a written synopsis so complex it would make the Ring Cycle seem like a nursery rhyme.

Yet somehow–no, not “somehow” but with imagination, genius and endless inspiration–the librettist/stage director Bea Goodwin managed to turn this two-hour fairy-tale-turned-tragedy into a whirling cosmos of fascinating characters, she has turned the opaque story of dueling kings, maidens-in-towers, jesters and wicked ladies and 19th Century European warfare into a thing of beauty.

We come to Whitney George’s excellent music later. For it was the staging here which was so rapturous. Ms. Goodwin worked with pantomime when necessary: ballroom scenes frenetic or in slow motion. She made the tower maidens (a stone tower with removable boulders for an escape) things of woe. The de rigueur love scene between two star-crossed lovers escaping their families’ “ancient grudge” staged with tenderness. And the crowd scenes of nuns, drunkards and villagers have an individuality of personality.

J. Brauner, E. Kakacek (© Brian Long)

Maurice Maeterlinck, in his first drama, used all the Symbolist imagery at his disposal, yet the story is a fairy tale. Two young people fall in love, their warring parents separate them–and go to war. The princess winds up in a tower, the prince goes looking for her (after he had destroyed the Princess’s father’s kingdom), they find each other and then..., well, then the complexities really commence. It ends not like a “happily-ever-after” but like a Shakespearean tragedy–poisonings, knifings, suicide–but one doesn’t worry too much.

For the two-act opera goes like wildfire, and even the long soliloquies are broken up with a Fool (Kenneth Mandelbaum, part Jester, part Pan, part Greek Chorus, part mime), some insane dancing (yes, a 1920’s-style Valentino-Negri trango which really works) and that medley of crowds and solos.

This, the wizardry of Ms. Goodwin, was matched by the music and conducting of composer Whitney George. She is, I read, a most eclectic composer, and here she obviously made the music fit the words. Melodies were offered when necessary, yet more often she provided an eddying whirl of notes behind the pantomime and dancing.

Her 15-piece orchestra on the side of the stage was dominated by winds and piano/harp/vibraphone rippling, as befits a fairy-tale. When necessary she added Ye Ancient Dies Irae for the portent of doom. Her waltzes were tuneful, her tango was–startlingly–wacky–and the few duets were written as if ready to be turned into an orchestral suite.

The music was more than complementary. Yet the it was so appropriate that one was glued to the action on stage rather than the few set pieces.

With a cast of around 20–every one with individual feelings and music–one can go little more than give a quasi-“Bravo” to the entire ensemble. The acting was fervent, the emotions truthful, the voices were as professionally telling as all of the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble voices could be.

J. Mandelbaum/L. Bouk, M. Hollie (© Brian Long)

One must of course compliment the lovers, Elyse Kakacek and Jeremy Brauner. With a certain caveat. Ms. Kakacek has a lilting lightweight voice ideal here. Mr. Brauner has a rich resonant baritone. So rich, and so resonant that it nearly overwhelms the delicacy of the dramatic tapestry. The two kings, notably Eric Lindsey were regal (Mr. Lindsey’s aria that he will “bury” his rival was frightening.)

Yet it was the smaller character roles which were most notable. Mr. Mandelbaum a dancer as well as singer (and, yeah, annoying at time: but mimes are meant to be annoying). A small but trenchant scene from “Doctor” Marquez Hollie. Liz Bouk admits to being the Queen of “Vengeance”: part Snow White witch, part Lady Macbeth, all pure evil. Her poor daughter, MaKayla McDonald, makes a role both funny and sympathetic

And how can one forget Jonathan Harris? In Act One, he is the king who assigns his daughter to the Tower and soon is killed. But returns–as the puppeteer of a pet poodle called Pluto (not Disney’s but the King of the Underworld). A lovely touch, and I hope it was Maeterlinck’s original drama.

The dramatist, by the way, didn’t enjoy the opera of his Pelléas et Mélisande, but this had nothing to do with Debussy. Said the poet, “I simply have no feeling for music at all. When I heard the opera, I felt like a blind man in a museum.”

Perhaps he would have enjoyed this production more. It moved, it was emotional, it was musically splendid and dramatically exciting. Triumphs of new operas are far between. One feels that–outside of the inconceivable task of getting the right cast and orchestra–Ms. George’s work deserves (besides its four further La Mama performances) a place in the American operatic repertory.

Harry Rolnick



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