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Southern scheming: (l-r) Flanigan and Lauren Skuce in Regina.

Why Bring This Back?
By Paul Rapp


Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, July 29

Bard’s Summerscape series is honoring Aaron Copland, so it’s a little weird that Copland’s opera The Tender Land is being given a chamber treatment in the Fisher Center’s small theater, while the banner production of the summer is Marc Blitztein’s Regina, a long, problematic 1949 opera based on Lillian

Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Blitzstein was a lesser-known contemporary of Copland’s and shared Copland’s leftist views for which both drew heat from the McCarthy Committee in the early ’50s.

For starters, operatic singing and understandable diction appear to be natural enemies, particularly in upper- register singing. Even though the libretto was in English, the singers rendered the vast majority of the action utterly incomprehensible, and there were no super-titles to relieve the frustration. And while a small part of the dialogue was spoken, most of it was half sung, in that tuneless singing-talk style (there were few, if any, memorable arias). This device is delightful when practiced by a good cantor in a temple. Elsewhere, however, it ranks second only to the bass solo at a metal show as the most annoying musical mannerism ever created, especially when the listener is straining to clue in to the narrative of a three-hour play, and failing.

Secondly, this play is essentially a Southern parlor drama about perpetually drunk über-white folks in a crumbling mansion, circa 1900, screwing each other over for money. The black “help” gets two short featured scenes in the play, essentially minstrel-show ragtime song-and-dance numbers that, while providing much-needed vitality to the evening, were borderline embarrassing. Throughout the rest of the play, black actors mostly stood in the shadows, often holding musical instruments, watching the pathetic machinations of the principal actors in expressionless silence. Whatever these minor characters were thinking would have been more interesting than the bland backstabbing occurring on center stage. Whatever the black actors were in fact thinking about their roles must have been more interesting than that.

Marquee soprano Lauren Flanigan brought little to her title role, where a little joyous devilishness in her duplicity would have created depth to her character. As it was, she was just bland and unsympathetic. Stephen West, as Regina’s ailing husband Oscar, conveyed deep emotion, his remarkable bass was thrilling, and his diction perfectly understandable. Marc Embree, as Regina’s oafish brother Ben, also lit up several scenes with his vaguely W.C. Fields-like behavior.

On the bright side, the set, by noted installation artist Judy Pfaff, was remarkable, a three-story-high affair that perfectly captured the crumbling South’s faded decadence, and provided shifting and exciting stagings for the various scenes. If only the rest of the production had aspired to such heights.

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