Opera News has reviewed the latest CD from Lee Hoiby that features a recording of This is the Rill Speaking performed by Eastman Opera a few months before the staged AOP premiere that took place this past April. Benton Hess was the conductor for both Rill productions.
RECORDINGSOpera and Oratorio
With his 1987 opera Bon Appétit!, American composer Lee Hoiby (b. 1926) took on the making of a chocolate cake, as told through the actual words of celebrity chef Julia Child. Hoiby composed Bon Appétit! in 1985 for American actress Jean Stapleton, who sang the 1989 premiere at the Kennedy Center and later performed it in an off-Broadway run, paired with another Hoiby one-woman one-act, The Italian Lesson. The libretto for Bon Appétit! was adapted by Hoiby’s frequent collaborator Mark Shulgasser from transcripts of two episodes of Child’s TV show, The French Chef. The overwhelming popularity of Child (1912–2004) came not just from her culinary expertise but from her self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact style. Hoiby wisely left most of the gags for the staging and wrote a tuneful but straight-ahead vocal line with no melismatic flights of fancy. The performance here by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick, an assistant professor of voice at Eastman, is likewise engaging but not showy. What’s delicious about this twenty-minute piece is Hoiby’s lively, playful accompaniment and his colorful orchestration for piano and chamber ensemble. Like Child’s whipped egg whites, Bon Appetit! may be light and frothy, but it’s the result of a master’s sure touch.
This is the Rill Speaking is a chamber opera adapted by Hoiby and Schulgasser from a 1965 play of the same name by Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who provided the libretto for Hoiby’s 1971 setting of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. Set for six singers playing eleven characters,This is the Rill Speaking is a tender evocation of small town America circa 1950, similar in nature to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Though the work was written in 1991, a New York City performance produced this past spring by American Opera Projects was billed as the opera’s “world-premiere professional production.” Eastman Opera Theatre gave the premiere performance of Hoiby’s orchestrated version of the opera as recently as January 2008, directed by Johnathon Pape, and this recording soon followed. The six Eastman students in the cast do a more than serviceable job, though some use hick accents that are fake and intrusive. Hoiby’s writing for voice and orchestra moves with surprising ease between urban swagger and country languor.
The Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra conducted by Benton Hess provides fine accompaniments to both works.