Seldom-Heard Operas Evoke Calm and Storms
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.
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.