30 September 2014

Cohen’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’

Beatrice (Britt, foreground) with Giovanni (McDonnell)
and Lizbetta (Dunn).
All photographs courtesy of Michael Cohen.

In the circles I frequent, Michael Cohen is much admired as the composer of “Das Chicago Song,” the delirious, pitch-perfect pastiche of Weill songs that Madeline Kahn sang in her New York debut, her Broadway debut, and her audition for Blazing Saddles. Michael also helped Madeline to prepare “Glitter and Be Gay,” Cunegonde’s tour-de-force aria in Bernstein’s Candide; she used the number to audition for the New York Philharmonic’s concert performance in 1968, rendering moot any question whether she was up to the demands of the song. “She was not foolin’ around,” stage director Sheldon Patinkin remembered. “She wanted that part.”*

Michael has written all sorts of other music, too: instrumental, music-theater, opera, and perhaps most notably, three pieces based on the story of Anne Frank (Yours, Anne, I Am Anne Frank, and I Remember). This month, New York’s Theater for the New City saw Michael’s opera Rappaccini’s Daughter (to a libretto by Linsey Abrams, based on Hawthorne’s short story) in fully staged performance to piano accompaniment — and I could easily picture Madeline in the role of Lizbetta, the wily landlady. Lissa Moira’s production was one of the most lavish I’ve ever seen in such circumstances, and I got a clear idea how effectively Rappaccini could transfer to an opera house. My introduction to Michael’s music, “Das Chicago Song,” may be a spoof, but Rappaccini is an opera, all right, and Michael isn’t foolin’ around.

From the first swirling notes of the opera, we’re transported to a garden of twisting tendrils and mysterious powers. Rappaccini (baritone) pressures Lizbetta (mezzo-soprano) to lure unsuspecting young men to rent a room that overlooks his garden, all part of a scientific experiment he’s conducting on his daughter, Beatrice (soprano). Over the objections of Baglioni (baritone), Giovanni (tenor) rents the room and falls in love with Beatrice — only to discover her secret, and then to learn to his horror that he can’t rescue her or himself.

Michael’s score is gratifyingly Late Romantic, in which passions are expressed fully but more coolly than they would have been in Hawthorne’s time. Though Michael’s approach is thoroughly contemporary, there’s nothing cynical in this music and the way it tells this story: it’s as if the score shares the characters’ feelings yet understands them differently. Amid the Debussian atmospherics, full-throated arias and love duets pop out, and Abrams’ libretto, with its steadfast reliance on rhyme, supports the music’s tonality. She and Michael aren’t reinventing the art form; they’re adapting traditional forms to their own purposes. And I’m eager to hear what Michael will do with the orchestration.

The production got so many things right, while pointing to areas where improvements still could be made. From the start, Rappaccini’s garden is alive with writhing plants portrayed by five dancers. This brilliant concept instantly conveys the strangeness of the setting, but choreographer Robert Gonzales, Jr., gave us a little too much of it, and despite Moira’s efforts to keep the focus on the singers, dancing bodies can be awfully distracting. Designer Mark Mercante’s gorgeous set unfortunately required compromise with the performing space (and perhaps the budget). The elimination of a wall made it quite difficult at first to understand why Giovanni doesn’t simply walk right into the garden. And Lizbetta’s characterization — much rounder than in Hawthorne’s short story — may require a little fine-tuning in the libretto as well as in the staging. I particularly admired Jennifer Anderson’s storybook costumes and the wonderfully weird flowers in the garden.

Giovanni and Beatrice confront Rappaccini (Broderick),
as Baglioni (Fisher) looks on.

Almost like a Golden Age soprano from the 1930s, Samantha Britt presented a sweetly warbling, classically Romantic heroine, and she portrayed Beatrice’s innocence with real feeling — something that’s quite difficult to do, actually. Like all the cast, she offered beautiful diction, though some of her music is written in registers too high for verbal clarity. William Broderick and Martin Fisher made fine foils as Rappaccini and Baglioni. The contrast in their voices — Fisher stentorian and burnished, Broderick lighter and almost genial — suggested that Baglioni is wiser and more authoritative, Rappaccini more naïve, an intriguing interpretation of the characters.

Douglas McDonnell lent an almost Heldentenor quality to Giovanni’s music, which proved especially apt when (in another departure from Hawthorne) the character dies along with his beloved. McDonnell has money notes galore, but in this small space I sometimes regretted that he didn’t scale back his sound. Darcy Dunn’s Lizbetta was the most complex character onstage, and her singing, from limpid high notes to a rich middle and lower registers, reflected that complexity. Yes, she made me wonder what Madeline Kahn would have done with the role, and I mean that as a compliment.

At the piano, music director Jonathan Fox Powers exulted in the lush textures of the score, easily shifting gears from the evening’s first presentation, Seymour Barab’s comic opera Out the Window (also directed by Moira), marvelously entertaining yet often no more than a series of jingles. As a demented wife in Window, Lauren Hoffmeier walked off with the show, with abundant vocal power, daredevil physicality, and hilarious characterization.

What stuck with me was the theme of Rappaccini, however, and perhaps it’s difficult for anyone my age to hear Beatrice sing, “My breath may be tainted, but my heart is pure,” and not think of the early years of the AIDS crisis: my ears heard “blood,” not “breath,” and I thought of love and risk and death. Hawthorne may have written this story in 1844, but Michael Cohen and Linsey Abrams made it relevant to a listener 170 years later. Here’s hoping more people have the chance to hear this opera, and to find its meaning as it applies to their own experience. That is, after all, what real operas invite us to do.

*NOTE: A titan of American theater, Sheldon Patinkin died September 21, during the run of Rappaccini’s Daughter. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview him for Madeline’s biography.

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