New York Times: Playing Composer, of Course, to Impress

January 13, 2014 5:03 pm In the News

Bronx Opera Company’s ‘The Rivals’ at the Lovinger Theater

At a time when opportunities for gifted emerging opera composers blazing all manner of new stylistic trails appear to be proliferating, there’s something to be said for a company willing to go to bat for fresh pieces by veteran creators working in conventional modes. Not long ago, that company likely would have been the Dicapo Opera, which performed an estimable service in championing composers like Thomas Pasatieri, Tobias Picker and Conrad Susa.

But with Dicapo in a state of limbo, it falls to other institutions to fill the void. Kudos, then, to the Bronx Opera Company, which opened its 47th season on Saturday night with “The Rivals,” a 2002 comic opera by Kirke Mechem, in the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College. Mr. Mechem, born in Wichita, Kan., and based in San Francisco at 88, is a skillful composer especially admired for his vocal music. “Tartuffe,” his first opera, has played more than 350 times since its 1980 San Francisco Opera premiere.

Mr. Mechem fashioned his own libretto for “The Rivals,” his third opera, relocating an 18th-century Sheridan comedy from Bath, England, to Newport, R.I., around 1900. The tale centers on Jack Absolute, a British naval captain who has concocted a fictitious alter ego — Waverley, an impoverished opera composer — to woo Lydia Larkspur, an American heiress who dreams of living in “charming poverty” in a Parisian garret. The couple are surrounded with a small cadre of friends, lovers, servants and, yes, rivals.

Naturally, confusion ensues. Deftly juggling nine substantial roles, Mr. Mechem sets their entanglements awhirl with his buoyant melodies, supple harmonies and perky rhythms. In spirit, “The Rivals” harks to Rossini and Donizetti; in sound, it weds Puccini’s generous lyricism to the dancing meters of Bernstein’s “Candide.”

Mr. Mechem’s libretto is bright and witty, especially in the high-flown errors he concocts for Mrs. Malaprop, that marvelous Sheridan character whose name became synonymous with linguistic blunders. The music unfailingly suits the words with its airy lines, elegant ensembles and sly allusions: a whiff of “La Bohème” each time Lydia dreams of noble destitution, for instance.

Among Saturday’s cast, one of two in rotation, Mario Diaz-Moresco was a suave Jack Absolute, and Julie-Anne Hamula a properly dreamy, petulant Lydia. Caroline Tye provided good-natured puffery as Mrs. Malaprop. Rogelio Peñaverde sang sweetly as the constantly downcast Nicholas Astor. Halley Gilbert stole scenes as Lucy, an enterprising maid. Jack Anderson White and Erik Bagger were consistently amusing in supporting roles.

Benjamin Spierman oversaw a smart production, with spare yet appropriately detailed sets by Scott Aronow, thoughtful lighting by G. Benjamin Swope and attractive costumes by Joan Greenhut and Maureen Klein. Eric Kramer, the conductor that night, elicited a solid effort from the orchestra, with only a few split ends.

The only disappointment — and it was substantial — was a theater resistant to clear, strong projection over even a small orchestra: a quality vital to Mr. Mechem’s opera, particularly when, as here, projected titles were not used. Still, the company did commendable work under the circumstances, and should do better still when the production comes to the Kaye Playhouse this weekend.

Correction: January 13, 2014
An earlier version of a sub-heading with this review misidentified the site of the performance. It was the Lovinger Theater, not the Kaye Playhouse, where “The Rivals” will be presented next weekend.

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