Commonwealth Opera at the Academy of Music, Northampton, Massachusetts. Adapted by Marc Blitzstein
My old PhD mentor Alan Downer used to tell his students, “Go to the theatre as often as possible. If it’s good, it’s entertaining, and if it’s bad, it’s instructive.” I had more than I needed of instruction last night at the Academy. We cut our losses and left after the first act.
The idea, for this cash-strapped local opera company, was to find a mode of production that was at the same time viable and cheap. They thought they found it by setting the opera in a circa-1920s American radio station, with everyone in street clothes, orchestra on stage in shirt-sleeves, a table and a few chairs, a couple of microphones downstage, and the bare walls for scenery. This might have worked, but there were two flaws that together proved fatal: we could never tell whether we were supposed to be looking at and hearing a theatrical performance or hearing a radio broadcast; and the performances themselves were greatly lacking in spirit, pace, articulation, and even sheer audibility. The performers were mostly glued to their scripts, except for a few instances where a singer handed his or her script to someone else while a song was being sung. The whole thing was not much better than a first read-through. And we paid $39.00 for balcony seats for this! Even the orchestra, conducted by long-time choral professor Wayne Abercrombie, was ragged. The dissonance of Weill’s music is supposed to sound intentional! A few good voices provided some momentary relief from the boredom: Mary Jane Disco as a somewhat overplayed but beautifully and articulately sung Mrs. Peachum, and John Salvi as a vigorous, lively “Tiger” Brown with a fine, well-projected baritone voice. But the Macheath, Daniel Kamelic, listed as “Tenor / Baritone,” was correspondingly uncertain and ambivalent as a singer / actor; there was little life and spirit, and hardly any articulation, to his performance.
It seems to me the fault for this sad misfiring can be laid squarely at the doorstep of Common-wealth’s artistic director Ron Luchsinger, who failed to understand and interpret the “radio station” metaphor he dreamed up and failed also to instill any life into his production.
Commonwealth Opera has fallen on hard times — this has been evident for a while — and their masthead, printed in the program, shows enough “pro-tem” officers and functionaries to speak volumes about the sorry state of the company as a whole. A savior is needed, if this company is to continue for another year.