Valley Light Opera, Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst Regional High School auditorium. Mary Jane Disco, stage director; Michael Greenebaum, music director and conductor; Li Ciaglo, choreographer. Five performances, including two matinees, opening Saturday, November 6 and closing Sunday, November 14.
I can hardly be neutral when it comes to reviewing a Valley Light Opera production, since I have been a member of this wonderful community theater organization, on and off (mostly on), since the time of its first production, H. M. S. Pinafore, in 1975. This current year, I was responsible for putting together the program; that was my only connection with the production. But this means that I had an early glimpse of this opera in the abstract, as it were. The concrete reality that emerged on Friday night fulfilled almost every promise offered by the program — a tall, eight-panel, three-folded affair that packs an unbelievable amount of information into a beautifully designed though hard-to-carry handout.
There is inevitably some unevenness in the performances; one expects that and doesn’t mind. Yet in general terms this production was as smooth, uneventful, and, more to the point, as full of life and joyousness as any production of the VLO that I have seen or been in in the thirty-five years of its existence. Michael Greenebaum, as music director and conductor, did as close to a professional job in preparing the principals, the chorus, and the orchestra as he or any other music director and conductor has ever done for this organization. Of course, some of these singers and players have been with the VLO from the start. And this is now the third production of Iolanthe that they have done. I remember being in the first one, and singing the role of Lord Mountararat. And so the music was exceedingly familiar to me, and it came back to me moment by moment from first to last.
Notwithstanding these memories, the music sounded as fresh as could be, and the cast of principals did Gilbert’s book and lyrics as much justice as they did Sullivan’s music. The pace was almost uniformly good, with the exception of the dialogue and music of the trio, “He who shies at such a prize,” which, as in the case of trios in other G & S operas, lacked rehearsal; and particularly the dialogue after it, in which Phyllis plays a part, came to a dead stop at one point when both Lord Mountararat and Lord Tolloller forgot their lines. Fortunately, they were rescued by an alert Phyllis, and the scene limped on to its conclusion. Bart Bales, playing Lord Mountararat, singles himself out as much as possible on stage and in life, but here he did so to his own detriment by dropping a line.
The Lord Tolloller, Jonathan Evans, said something to me afterwards, as we were departing, and clearly was rather shame-faced over his lapse. I pretended not to have noticed. Jonathan played Ralph Rackstraw under my direction the last time the VLO produced Pinafore. He was a challenge, though he was completely in earnest and doing his absolute best; but he lacked a good stage sense, and also lacked self-confidence. It took some effort to convince him that he was in fact doing well, had a fine voice for the role, and mainly just needed to relax into the part and have fun. I remember that he did just that, by opening night or the next night. Evidently, either his Friday night performance was an “off night,” this time, or Mary Jane Disco needed to have recognized his difficulties earlier and worked with him more.
These are the kinds of challenges that make working in community theater an effort, but largely a happy one.
Part of the “happiness” is contingent on willingness to acknowledge that (could I put it this way?) contrary to the scheme of things in fairyland, fairies do indeed grow old. Despite the fictional fact in Gilbert’s opera, fairies who looked seventeen, or in any case twenty, in 1980 or 1985 do not look seventeen in 2010. They look their age, and have been, in some cases, noticeably victimized by middle-age spread. They still have lovely, or at any rate serviceable, voices, quite good enough for a chorus as musically well trained as this one. And, bless her, the new choreographer, Li Ciaglo, evidently saw what she was confronted with and gave these fairies, whether they were really seventeen or “their own age,” movements they could do with a minimum of discomfort. In fact she went well beyond that necessary minimum, giving these nymphs from fairlyland kick-dancing reminiscent of the Folies Bergères. Not to be outdone, she gave the same absurd kick dances to the Lords of Parliament as well. I don’t know when I have ever laughed so hard inwardly as well as outwardly. The Lords, of course, have roles in which they can act their age, have retained the beards that they wear in real life, and can otherwise be themselves.
Such contretemps are increasingly rare with this company, and much of the rest of the action moved swimmingly and most entertainingly along. Iolanthe has a cast as large as any of the operas, I believe, along with a typical double chorus, male and female, of more than two dozen; and so the demands on stage and music directors and choreographer are great (to say nothing of the modest extent of the high school auditorium stage). All three were equal to the task. Li Ciaglo, choreographer, coming to the VLO for the first time, imposed beautiful and lively dancing on chorus and principals alike. (Given the short span of nine weeks in which the company spends rehearsing, this was a phenomenal feat.) Mike Greenebaum, who has perhaps as much or more experience with the VLO as any artistic director (for the stage or music), I have already praised above.
But in the case of one singer in particular, his work was very impressive, as was the collaboration of stage director Mary Jane Disco. I have in mind the soprano playing Phyllis, Libby Maxey. Libby has a beautiful, soaring soprano voice, fully equal to the demands placed on the role by Sullivan. But Libby, being an independent-minded woman, and having been persuaded by some vocal teacher that her beautiful lyric voice would be compromised by articulating consonants, had been eschewing the same for several seasons. Up until this production, no one had been able to persuade her that in comic opera, as opposed perhaps to tragic grand opera, words matter. Somehow, someone managed to get this message through — whether it was Mike, or Mary Jane, or another coach, Ted Blaisdell, who is billed in the program as diction coach, I don’t know. But somehow a telling, if still imperfect, effect was produced. Add to this the fact that under Mary Jane’s expert direction, Libby gave the most energetic, delightful, even vital performance I have ever seen her give.
A few other stand-out performers included John Healy as Strephon, Heather Davies as Leila, one of the chief fairies, and Courtney Sylvain, the chiefest fairy of all, the Queen. These four along with Libby Maxey’s Phyllis gave sustained, energetic, varied, well-timed, and all-around attractive performances. Not quite as well sustained but still warmly received by the audience was Steve Morgan as the Lord Chancellor. This is a demanding role, no question about it, and by and large Steve rose to its various challenges. It is, as called in long-standing G & S lore, the “Martyn Green” role, the light baritone who sings the patter songs with unexampled, superb diction. Everything he does is comic or comical, or both. I have the feeling that Green played every one of these roles more or less the same way, though I have seen them done far differently by other singers with somewhat heavier voices. Steve Morgan certainly has more of a bass-baritone than a light baritone voice, and it would appear that the decision was made that he would not be such a cut-up and instead would play it straight — not solemnly but just straight. And I have to add, the over-large grey wool judge’s wig, which looked as if it interfered with his peripheral vision, didn’t help. He was, however, perfect in the lyrics for his two patter songs, in Act I (“When I went to the bar as a very young man”) and in Act II (“Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest”), and especially demanding, rapid-fire account of one of the most comical dreams ever recorded, populated with such phenomena as an eleven-year-old attorney crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle and other such comic-phantasmagoric spectacles — Gilbert at his lyricist’s best. And yet somehow there was something missing. Steve’s voice has something of an old man’s quaver in it, and I think it would have been better if he had made a virtue of necessity and varied the tone and done other things vocally and otherwise with business to make his character funnier. He brought a pillow with him for the dream sequence, but it was a small pillow of the sort one might use for lumbar support, not a larger one suitable for an uneasy head. He was given some business for it by Mary Jane, but it was not particularly funny. I think Steve and Mary Jane didn’t finally decide just how to play the Lord Chancellor. And it showed.
A sad event occurred just yesterday (Saturday), the day after we attended. Sally Venman, who together with her husband Bill Venman founded the Valley Light Opera in 1975 and have been since then both shepherds and guiding lights for this treasured community resource, suddenly died. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years, had lost much of her short-term memory, but retained some good parts of her long-term memory. One of their five children has played flute in the VLO orchestra since she was a girl. Sally’s death, from a viral infection that overwhelmed her resources, will leave a permanent gap in the company and in the community. Bill Venman will carry on because he is that kind of person; I know him well. The event was announced from the stage last night, and I don’t know what impact it may have had on the audience or what their response may have been. I feel sure that the cast, the orchestra, and everyone else associated will have carried on in the best of theatrical traditions. It is a very sad loss.