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A Comic and Lyrical Gem by Smetana

New York
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
01/17/2009 -  and January 18, 2009
Bedřich Smetana: The Two Widows
Emily Newton (Anežka), Katherine Wessinger (Karolina), Jon Michael Ball (Ladislav), Michael Anthony McGee (Grumlal), Rebecca Blinder (Lidka), Kannan Vasudevan (Tonik)
Bronx Opera Chorus, Michael Haigler (Chorus Master), Bronx Opera Orchestra, Michael Spierman (Conductor and Artistic Director)
Scott H. Schneider (Production Manager), Royston Coppenger (Stage Director), Meganne George (Set and Costume Designer), Nicole Lee Aiossa (Choreographer), Rychard Curtiss (Lighting Designer)

(© Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY)

Michael Spierman’s Bronx Opera has been a beloved fixture of the New York music scene since it mounted its first production, Mozart’s Cosě fan tutte forty-one years ago, at the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in the Bronx. Season after season, the company has presented fully-staged operas in English throughout the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, often in locations where no opera has been before. Some of its singers have gone on to careers at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera. Many of the rest have continued with their day jobs and sing with Spierman as an act of love. His casts have included teachers, reporters, chemists, a psychiatrist, a former professional football player, and – anecdotally the most interesting – the chief veterinarian at the Utica, New York zoo, who drove four hours each way to attend weekly rehearsals.

The Company performs the standard repertoire, but they have also developed a reputation for mining the occasional obscure and neglected gem. Such a find was on display last night at the Kaye Playhouse, where the Bronx Opera presented Bedřich Smetana’s two act comedy, Two Widows.

Smetana composed eight operas. By far the most famous of these is The Bartered Bride, which premiered in Prague in 1866. His fourth opera, The Two Widows, premiered eight years later. It was based on Les deux veuves, a one act romantic comedy by Pierre-Felicien Mallefille, that was popular in Paris at the time. Emanuel Züngel, Smetana’s librettist, translated the work into Czech. They created a gentle comedy with well-drawn characters whose personalities are embodied in their music. The opera is filled with lovely lyrical melodies, folk-like tunes and dances, and wonderful, beautifully crafted ensembles. Richard Strauss admired it so much that he made sure to schedule his visits to Prague, where Smetana’s works continue to be a staple of the operatic repertoire, so that he could attend a performance.

The two widows are Karolina, who owns a large estate in the country, and her cousin, Anežka, her house guest. While Karolina has long since come to terms with her loss and exhibits an almost boundless joie de vivre, for her cousin grief is still fresh. The story begins when Karolina’s gamekeeper, Grumlal, arrives to report the presence of a most unusual sort of poacher. He shoots a great deal but never hits anything. Indeed, he seems to want to be caught and brought to the house.

His name is Ladislav, and it turns out that the subject of his interest is human, not animal. He is in love with Anežka. And she loves him, but will not act on her feelings or even admit them to Ladislav or her cousin because of an overwhelming sense of guilt. She had loved him while she was still married to her husband.

Karolina, as clever as she is fun-loving, sizes up the situation and resolves to get Anežka to acknowledge her feelings. She stages a mock trial and convicts Ladislav of poaching. His sentence is confinement – in her house. Then she feigns a romantic interest in Ladislav and announces that she will marry him if her cousin will not. In the end, Anežka and Ladislav declare their feelings for each other and all unite in a rousing celebration of the power of love.

Jon Michael Ball as Ladislav conveyed the gentle devotion of his character in his singing and his acting. He sang with a lovely legato line, particularly in his act two celebration of the glories of spring – and love. The object of his affection, Anežka, is in many ways the emotional and psychological heart of the opera. Emily Newton sang with a power, warmth, and control. Her act two aria painted a portrait of a woman of conscience who was racked by guilt but also touched by love. It was beautifully sung and dramatically compelling.

Karolina drives the plot and provides the fun. She was wonderfully portrayed by Katherine Wessinger, whose lovely vocal color suffused her singing and her speaking. Her enunciation was just about perfect. Michael Anthony McGee has a fine well-focused baritone voice, a knack for physical comedy, and a terrific stage presence. Rebecca Blinder and Kannan Vasudevan as the young lovers, Lidka and Tonik, were convincing and winning. The chorus beautifully prepared and a pleasure to hear. The dancing, particularly in the last scene, in which the entire cast participated, was excellent. What a treat it was to see a cast of singers with talent in dance and drama that matched their singing. Michael Spierman conducted his orchestra with spirit and zest. The Bronx Opera’s next production will be Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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