Hoiby’s Rill cd reviewed in Opera News

October 28, 2008

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.

Opera and Oratorio


Cowdrick, Hannigan, Cramer, Iezzi; J. Wilson, Wilgenbusch, Arnold; Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra, Hess. Texts. Albany Records TROY 1028

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.


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

%d bloggers like this: