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Flash Review, 5-13: Seance
Schwartz conjures musical spirits at the NYC Opera

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2011 Christine Chen

NEW YORK -- Stephen Schwartz, the musical theater wunderkind best known for his work on the Broadway hits "Godspell," "Pippin," and "Wicked," has ventured into the rarified world of opera. "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," based on the novel by Mark McShane and the 1964 film by Bryan Forbes, delivered some memorable images and moving arias, as presented by the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. The City Opera production, seen April 29, is directed by Scott Schwartz (the composer's son), and features sets by Heidi Ettinger. While the melodies don't stay with you in the same way Broadway show tunes do, nor do the compositions feel as complexly structured as classic operas, Schwartz's maiden voyage into the form deserves attention for its ability to tell a powerful story by drawing out the tensions and subtexts of its characters through music.

The opera's ominous, rainy mood is immediately established by Ettinger's simple but stunning array of chains that hang elegantly across the stage. The chains pulse and sway in the stark lighting.The sound of their gentle clanging, as they collide and rumple to floor, suggests the heavy sound of rain, while simultaneously creating a mysterious yet alluring atmosphere.

The unsettling story centers on Myra (soprano Lauren Flanigan), a psychic who regularly and desperately convenes with her dead son, and her husband Bill (baritone Kim Josephson), who tragically enables her. Her dead son, Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo), has apparently hatched a plan that will convince the world of Myra's paranormal abilities. It involves kidnapping a wealthy couple's daughter, holding her for ransom, then saving the day with a premonition about her exact location. Motives shift, plots twist, and tragedy eventually ensues.

Schwartz allows the compelling plot to tumble forward through sweet and sometimes comedic expositional melodies, occasionally undercut by an undertone of eerie and violent vibratos. The performers are emotionally believable and sympathetic throughout, but the second act is where Schwartz's music and libretto delve into emotional extremes and provide the characters with real vehicles for expressing their psychological dysfunctions. Through a climactic series of arias, they reveal their motivations and tragic conflicts. Bill laments his participation in his wife's abhorrent plan, while justifying his actions as inescapable because of his unconditional and uncontrollable love for her. Bailey Grey, who plays the mother of the kidnapped girl, sings passionately to her dubious husband about how she, despite reason, needs to believe and put her faith in the psychic. And Flanigan is remarkably able to explain Myra's extreme and indefensible choices through a pained aria about her own tragedy.

While Schwartz's foray into opera has been controversial ("Is it too accessible?"), "Sťance" undeniably drew in a more diverse crowd than I've previously seen at NYC Opera, as musical theater geeks flocked to see their hero's latest labor of love. I am neither an opera buff nor a musical theater geek (I've never seen "Pippin"), but I was drawn into the story, I empathized with the characters, and I was stirred to thoughtful emotion. I am not sure how "accessibility" became a dirty word, but I'll take it over pretentiousness any day.

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