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A Singer’s Notes 32: Two in Hubbard – Menotti’s The Medium and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

The cast of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along at Hubbard Hall

The cast of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along at Hubbard Hall

Hubbard Hall is a space which seems to fit its performers ideally. No pretension, no million dollar sets, and a willingness to use local actors if they are good enough. Every show I have seen there has gained a directness and an honesty from this space. Director Kevin McGuire’s Merrily We Roll Along, performed by the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, was clearly articulated. The artificiality of the musical itself was not entirely overcome, but there was a clear way through the episodic book. I can’t say it seemed like great Sondheim. It sounded like Sondheim, but it lurched and iterated its fundamental points all too often. The show was strongly cast; the younger actors especially sang clearly and truly, and held my interest through the longest numbers, again with a kind of direct and guileless strength. It was no surprise that the most beautiful singing of the night came from Kara Cornell who despite the flatness of her role, got the best song, “Not a Day Goes By.” Kara sets an excellent example for other young singers. She doesn’t use her voice as an excessive instrument, but an incisive instrument. The clarity of her singing is the beauty of it. She showed again in this show, beyond any doubt, that this repertoire can be sung beautifully if the actress is vivid.  Hearing Merrily We Roll Along made my ears move ahead to the later shows. It was like hearing the birth, the distant ancestor really, of Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. The force and cohesion of these last two are a miracle. So what if we had to wait a couple of shows to get it.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s lurid pot-boiler, The Medium, performed by Hubbard Hall Opera Theater, fit even more precisely into the space. Its overweening location is claustrophobia. Jason Dolmetsch’s direction got this across better than other productions of the opera I have seen. It seemed a small dark apartment, hardly room to move, barely enough light to see, and this was right. The smallness of the enterprise, only one of Madam Flora’s activities, was palpable in the tightness of the space. The darkness of the old hall pressed down on the set and the actors, so that the central table was almost an altar-like mystery. Letting parents believe that their dead children can still speak to them is a two-edged sword. It’s not enough to say that it’s a fake job, which in this opera it certainly is. Menotti also makes it clear that it is the greatest happiness these parents can find. It’s a benevolent perjury, even a blessed one. When the clients (victims) are told that the whole thing is a set-up, they still believe the voices they have heard are real.  You almost feel comfortable with it. Then he gets you. A touch, a voice– a voice not produced by any device is heard by the Medium herself. Victoria Tralongo understood and showed with great skill that Madame Flora is already a person of violent temperament. In addition to her powerful singing, she filled her silent moments with an intensity that made the outbursts (Madame Flora’s role is basically a collection of outbursts) believable. The Medium is too short an opera to contain its own action comfortably.  The precipitous events made the kind of acting that Ms. Tralongo did essential. She connected it all so well. The strength of her voice was mirrored in the strength of her silence. Alexina Jones suggested the ambivalence of Monica’s character better than any other young singer I have seen. Is she good? Is she bad? Does she love the mute waif, Toby, who has come to live with them, or does she toy with him? Is she complicit with her mother’s deceptions beyond their simple need to get income? In Ms. Jones’s performance we got no clear answers to these questions, and that was good. She showed that Monica was capable of being carried away by the music she was singing, especially in the scene where she becomes Toby’s voice, which is really her voice.  In the beautiful song “Black Swan” she led her mother deftly. The end of the opera was keenly done, but it arrives too quickly, and we never hear any believable justification for Baba’s brutality toward Toby. It is the moments in the opera where the music takes over and carries us out of the melodrama that work. Perhaps the composer would say the coarseness of the action is what enables these moments. Maybe. There was very good singing from everyone in this opera, and Miles Mandwelle as Toby was exceptionally good at finding the blankness, maybe even the emptiness of the character. Most Toby’s I have seen, surrounded by melodramatic swiftness and a bare kind of action, show frustration. This poor Toby silently built a kind of whimsy around himself which was very moving. The old hall itself, as it has so many times for me, brought me into the dark center of the show and surrounded me with an articulate darkness. You might say it was singing.  Kelly Crandell’s specific and powerful playing of the score on the piano contributed mightily.

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