“The future of American opera is in good hands…”

July 10, 2008

Opera News reviews This Is the Rill Speaking

One of the highlights of the New York area’s opera season was the presentation of two of Lee Hoiby’s operas — specifically, the first professional production of his 1992 one-act This Is the Rill Speaking and the New York premiere of the latest revision of his 1986 grand opera, The Tempest. Both works were presented at SUNY Purchase in late April, under the aegis of the University and American Opera Projects. Subsequently, This Is the Rill Speaking was performed in New York City’s Symphony Space. On April 26, both operas were performed, with a panel discussion occurring between performances.

Based on the play by Lanford Wilson, This Is the Rill Speaking is an opera without a traditional dramatic framework. It offers a series of vignettes of American small-town life as it was in the postwar era of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Literary and dramatic touchstones would include Winesburg Ohio, Spoon River Anthology, Our Town and Under Milkwood. The music is precious and nostalgic without being cloying, lyrical and emotional without overstatement. Hoiby’s light, exquisite scoring adds tremendously to the music’s impact. The six cast members — Abigail Fischer, Andrew Garland, Malinda Haslett, Nicole Mitchell, William Ferguson and Justin Petersen — each performed in multiple short roles. To their credit, and that of director Ned Canty, the listener managed to retain a sense of which of their characters they were enacting. Each of these young singers deserves a paragraph of praise. Suffice it to say that we can expect further great performances from them, and that the future of American opera is in good hands. The performance space at Purchase was rather small. Fortunately, scene designer Glenn Reed and lighting designer Peter West were up to the challenge, making creative use of the entire stage. Benton Hess and the AOP Orchestra provided sensitive, assured accompaniment.

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Seldom-Heard Operas by Lee Hoiby Evoke Calm & Storms

April 30, 2008
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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

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