Seldom-Heard Operas by Lee Hoiby Evoke Calm & Storms

April 30, 2008
NY Times logo
Music Review

Seldom-Heard Operas Evoke Calm and Storms

Published: April 30, 2008

For lovers of vocal music, Lee Hoiby is a name to be reckoned with. Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming have been among the composer’s champions, and his songs are common currency for vocal students. Fate has not been as kind to Mr. Hoiby’s 11 operas — a pity, given the admirable craft and imagination they reveal.

Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times

Justin Petersen and Abigail Fischer in Lee Hoiby’s opera “This Is the Rill Speaking.”

In a valuable act of reclamation, American Opera Projects and the Purchase College Conservatory of Music provided welcome exposure for two of them, “This Is the Rill Speaking” and “The Tempest,” on Monday night at Symphony Space. What the two works share is conventional tonality, deft setting of English text and idiomatic librettos by Mark Shulgasser. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different.

“This Is the Rill Speaking,” a 1991 one-act setting of a Lanford Wilson play, offers a vision of rural, small-town life through snatches of conversation patched together like a comfortable quilt. Mr. Hoiby’s unfailingly gracious music mixes a nostalgic glow with moments of winking mischief and gentle seduction. Six singers fill 11 roles, accompanied by a string quartet, double bass, wind quintet and harp.

The American Opera Projects staging, designed by Glenn Reed and billed as the work’s first professional production, was spare and economical: a few scattered chairs and benches, a table and a wooden fence long and tall enough to conceal quick costume changes. Ned Canty, the director, provided clean, effective blocking.

Among a solid cast of young singers, Abigail Fischer, a mezzo-soprano, stood out for her attractive tone, abundant feeling and clear diction. Andrew Garland, a baritone, and William Ferguson, a tenor, also made strong impressions. The conductor, Benton Hess, drew a secure if not always polished performance from his instrumentalists.

Mr. Hoiby’s “Tempest,” from 1986, is a linguistically faithful condensation of Shakespeare’s play, set to a grandiose score for full orchestra. The conservatory’s Purchase Opera presented an hour of excerpts in concert, with its Purchase Symphony Orchestra onstage behind the singers, and the chorus in a balcony.

You could argue that while Mr. Hoiby’s writing never lacks potency or passion, his idiom is too conservative to realize Shakespeare’s strange, magical world properly. There are exceptions; one is the raging storm of a supremely evocative overture. Another is the role of Ariel, a stratospheric coloratura part reminiscent of Zerbinetta’s in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

Molly Davey brought a brilliant technique and an otherworldly shimmer to Ariel, and Robert Balonek was a strong, earnest Prospero. Eric Barry, as Caliban, was admirable in the big showpiece, “Be Not Afear’d,” but otherwise was overshadowed by the bug-eyed antics of Trinculo (Rasdia Wilmot) and Stephano (Julian Whitley). The remaining roles were capably handled, and the conductor, Hugh Murphy, provided lively guidance.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


Tan Dun and Stephen Schwartz join Composers & the Voice!

April 1, 2008

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Tan DunEsteemed composers Tan Dun (pictured top right, The First Emperor, Marco Polo) and Stephen Schwartz (pictured bottom right, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Wicked, Godspell) have joined AOP’s composer development program Composers & the Voice! As “composer chairs” Mr. Tan and Mr. Schwartz will join Mark Adamo, Lee Hoiby, Dick Peaslee, and Tobias Picker in supporting and fostering AOP’s trailblazing program for emerging composers. Each of these distinguished composers will be personally associated with a selected C&V composer throughout the season with opportunities to hear their work, join C&V discussions, and provide one-on-one feedback.Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Stephen Schwartz

The 2008 Composers and Composer Chairs are:

Clint Borzoni – Lee Hoiby
Kristin Kuster – Tobias Picker
Raymond Lustig – Mark Adamo
Jack Perla – Dick Peaslee
Greg Spears – Stephen Schwartz
Andrew Staniland – Tan Dun

Music from this season’s composers will be presented at C&V First Glimpse on May 8 and 9. To meet this season’s composers, click here.


%d bloggers like this: