Opera News online review of AOP Artistic Director Steven Osgood conducting Griffelkin.
On December 5, forty-two years after its premiere on NBC-TV, Lukas Foss’s fantasy opera Griffelkin was performed by Manhattan School of Music (itself marking its ninetieth anniversary) in honor of the composer’s eighty-fifth birthday, last August. The composer, who was present and took a bow, had started the work literally as a children’s opera, when he was eight, to a story written by his mother. Decades later, with a new libretto by Alastair Reid, Griffelkin turned out to be a sly, sophisticated work for audiences of all ages. In that respect it honors its descent from such European prototypes as Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (1893), Dvorák’s Cert a Káca (The Devil and Kate, 1899) and Jaromir Weinberger’s hit Svanda Dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper, 1927). In musical idiom, however,Griffelkin today sounds positively postmodern.
Griffelkin‘s title character, a young devil (literally), receives from his hellish cohorts a tenth-birthday present of a whole day upstairs on earth, with license to commit mayhem. He wields his magic powers to bring to life a Fountain Statue in Central Park, two Lions guarding the Public Library, a Letterbox, later a shopful of toys. But, befriended by a Girl and her family, he commits the crime (by devil standards) of using his magic to save the dying Mother’s life, and this gets him thrown out of Hell. Instead of punishment, he finds joy in his newfound human status.
Foss’s crafty score weaves allusions to styles current in the mid-twentieth century, notably Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but its comic aesthetics incline more toward Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi and Broadway. Above all, one senses the composer having enormous fun with a subject that in less adept hands might have taken a sentimental turn: his intricate, riotous finales to Acts II and III clear the air of this risk. MSM’s forty-two-piece orchestra, under the firm, flexible guidance of Steven Osgood, appeared to enjoy its assignment immensely, as did the production team, headed by director Linda Brovsky, set designer Erhard Rom, costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy and choreographer Tom Gold, working with a cast of thirty-eight. Rom’s vivid backdrop projections, including New York City subways (for the Hell scenes), the Public Library, Lincoln Center Plaza and the like, filled the stage without overpowering it, evoking memories of the film On the Town.
While MSM’s troupe included five junior members in bit parts, it entrusted the principal youth roles to young adults. The title role, which calls for dancing and acrobatics as well as strenuous singing, had more than a match in Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor of assurance, spirit and expressive dynamic range. His characterization held the stage more effectively than ever in the last two scenes, where his cry of “One word, please!” emerged a good deal louder than one usually hears from a countertenor. The devils were a street-tough crew. As the human family with whom Griffelkin forms a bond, Kristen DiNinno as the Girl, Shelly Wade (Boy) and Andrea Martin (Mother) performed their roles (borderline Menotti tearjerkers) with nice simplicity. Griffelkin’s Grandmother had an improbably glamorous protagonist in mezzo Margaret Peterson, spoofing a Hollywood femme fatale of the “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” variety.
The other singers, and the composer too, made capital of the abundant genre roles. The voluble Letterbox and philosophical Policeman (Scott England, Benjamin Bloomfield) brought familiar urban accents, while the Fountain Statue (Nicole Percifield), something of a scold, gently recalled Susan B. Anthony in Thomson’s The Mother of Us All. The Lions (Zachary Altman, Matthew Anchel) stole the show from time to time, though elaborate costumes kept them from sharing in the general animation.
JOHN W. FREEMAN