Jack Heggie describes himself as a theater composer concerned with serving drama and exploring character. His last opera, If I were youas revealed in the Boston University Opera Institute’s workshop production at the Booth Theatre, looks solid for a place in the canon of American musical theater alongside the best of Carlisle Floyd, Menotti and Sondheim… with nods to Puccini , Glass and possibly Andrew Lloyd Weber.
Librettos don’t always matter, but this one, set in an academic setting, with discussions of semesters and dropouts, makes for relevant subject matter for a younger cohort…perfect for selling opera to undergraduates…and they filled the flexible black box space. Librettist Gene Scheer adapted the novel Faustical by Julien Green If I were you
Essayist Robert Ziegler summarizes the novel thus:
[The Faust figure] Fabien is presented as a writer, but above all, he is a character from another writer’s fiction. As a metatext, Green’s novel describes the conversion of an author into a succession of language objects that are similar and foreign to him. In each of his different incarnations, Fabien transposes himself as a text, marrying a residual self-awareness to the desired attributes of his “host”. Fabien’s round trip can therefore represent the process of transformation of the writer’s reality into language, and the subsequent effort to resituate what this language had displaced.
Much of the apparent complexity (I haven’t read it) of the adapted novel is lost in the necessary and effective translation at the lyrical stage. Scheer transformed Fabien into Fabian (Forte?) “…I’ll kiss 1,000 girls, I’ll get 1,000 kicks, so let me go” and created a female Brittomara diabolus with a whip and a red cape, of course—think Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil Is a Woman” and Gwen Verdon (Lola, the Devil’s Agent) in “Damn Yankees”. Heggie even writes a brief mambo number that perhaps pays homage to the previous musical.
The third big part is for Diana, Fabian’s love interest, “a rambunctious 24-year-old.” She first appears in a youthful yellow dress unsuited to a huntress or heroine. Would it represent Gretchen, Marguerite or a Faustina? She must endure the seduction attempts of the many characters Fabian inhabits after his diabolical bargain. She resists. She does not give birth to a child who dies in a snowstorm, nor does she burn at the stake. Still, much of the story is told through her reactions, and she has the most stage time of any singer.
The other seven characters, eventually appearing in a larger chorus of Revenants and “townspeople”, variously portray themselves or as altered versions of Fabian, or simply function as spectators or extras. When Fabian returns bodily at the end to redeem his soul and die in the name of the writhing zombies (no choreographer named), it begs the question of why God and the devil would bother betting on Fabian’s goodness, a overall light weight.
The production at the Booth, as with virtually all stage performances of Mephisto, featured a trap for a descent into hell, but this worked two-way, facilitating a return to the surface. Designer Adam Hawkins’ very large anthropomorphic apple tree towered over the push scene, empty save for a few curvy tables and chairs. The dominant tree, hung with Plexiglas souls, also served as center-stage entrances and exits. He didn’t move or dance like his prototype in Disney’s stupid symphonly “Flowers and Trees”. Director of staging Jim Petosa identified the 12 scenes out of two act scenes mostly with title cards, otherwise we would have had no idea where we were: an ambulance, a automobiles, Putnam Publishing, a popular bar, Paul’s apartment and Fabian’s apartment. Vernacular costumes were of little interest.
Unfailingly wedded to words and emotions and orchestrated with generosity and artistry, Heggie’s work is interesting and never tires patience or credulity (musically, that is). And he certainly has a particular way of making his melodic figures memorable through clever repetition and development, as he uses leitmotifs; we know that while his Hallelujahs will shine with the warmth of Randall Thompson, his devilish Sanskrit (or otherwise) presto-changos will shock us every time they cause Fabian to shapeshift. His writing for singers evolved from a close association as an accompanist in standard performance and similarly his experience as a chamber musician humanizes his writing for orchestra.
While the libretto is a bit sophomoric, dwelling on bar encounters and apologies for conventional misunderstandings, the actual sung dialogue possessed a pleasant naturalness, especially since it was enveloped in the lyrical investment that Heggie allowed. He is kind to singers, but also demanding with his conductors, especially when he asks them to project themselves into a large orchestra in an open pit. He also knew when to create introspective tunes and when to engage the cast in duos, trios and larger groups.
William Lumpkin led the unbroken line of composed playing and singing with committed emphasis, never letting the motion cue forward, but never rushing the singer either. The 34 members of the Boston University School orchestra, although belonging to no identified ensemble, collaborated as if they were.
Saturday night’s 11 singers in the dual-cast production displayed vocal confidence and a comfortable stage presence. Whether as a seductive evil dominatrix or hairdresser in Brooklyn, or one of her many transforming personas, Gabrielle Barkidija made herself captivating on stage and sang with cursed engagement and satisfying vocal chops. Kira Kaplan brought the ingenuous Diana a youthful allure and charming tone that developed into deeper characterization and vocal power as the plot progressed. Fabian, Faust, not so strong, is called upon to pass himself off as an “unlovable and self-doubting dreamer”. Hmm, that doesn’t sound like a very juicy role. And it’s only at the end that the score calls for a truly dramatic outpouring. But when the time came for Fabian to sacrifice himself, Jangho Lee was ready.
Fabian’s alter egos or possessed bodies and souls presented far more interesting possibilities than Fabian himself; of course that’s why he chose to own them. Jacob O’Shea as Paul, a parlor lizard and bully, has had good luck with the ladies, in part because of his irresistibly dangerous Elvis manner. Vocally and visually, he commanded in his intense encounters…including the accidental murder of his lover Rachel, sexy miniskirt mezzo Carli Mazich-Addice. Hyungjin Son gave Boss Putnam a resonant bass voice, though he didn’t seem to change characters after Fabian took charge of his body and soul. Taking on David, “a successful young photographer,” William Benoit channeled Tab Hunter’s blandness with great charm.
While Diana regretted her fate as a frustrated huntress for the lost soul of her true love Fabian, Selena “her closest friend since childhood” seemed to comfort the enmity. Sarah Rogers, lived up to the personification of the comforter. His warm soprano paired perfectly with Kaplan’s in their love duet with a kiss near the end of the second act.
We welcome the return of the BU Opera Institute to the Boards of Directors and look forward to its Cosi fan Tutte at the Tsai Performance Center in April.
See images of the alternate cast HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the editor of the Spy
If I were you
Music by Jack Heggie
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Joan and Edgar Booth Theater
William Lumpkin, conductor
Jim Petosa, Director
Adam Hawkins, scenic designer
Andrew Wehling, costume designer
Max Wallace, lighting designer
Angela Dogani, production manager
Annie Kao, production manager
Allison Voth, Head Coach, Chorus Leader
Matthew Larson, Coach
Fernando Gaggini, Deputy Chief
Angela Gooch, coach
Ryan Winkles, fight choreography
Oshin Gregorian, General Manager
BRITTOMARA: *Gabrielle Barkidjija, +Alexis Peart
DIANA: *Kira Kaplan, +Addison Pattillo
FABIAN: *Jangho Lee, +Ryan Lustgarten
SELENA: *Sarah Rogers, +Danielle Pribyl
PUTNAM: Son of HyungjinPAUL: *Jacob O’Shea, +Yunus Akbas
DAVID: *William Benoit, +Marcus Huber
RACHEL: *Carli Mazich-Addice, +Lena Costello
JONATHAN: *Anthony Pilcher, +Ryan Mewhorter
TWO WOMEN……..Allison Holloway, Margaret Matejcek
*Indicates Thursday/Saturday performances+Indicates Friday/Sunday performances