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Passion to spare: Osud at Bard.

A Glorious Debut
By Paul Rapp

Bard SummerScape, The Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, July 25

With the new and stunning Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center as a centerpiece, Bard’s SummerScape arts series is exploring the world of Czech art. A remarkably diverse and fun menu of theater, film and music is slated—the major presentation of the schedule being last Friday’s U.S. premier of the opera Osud (Fate), by turn-of-the-century composer Leos Janácek.

This was also the debut of Gehry as a set designer and he did not disappoint. As the curtains parted for the beginning of the opera, the audience spontaneously erupted into applause and whoops of excitement. And no one was on the stage. The huge set consisted of, on the right, a huge white fabric-looking thing suspended in the air. Depending on your mood, this thing looked like a tornado, a bodice (coming off), or a huge lily opening in bloom. On the left was a big long brown tube thing, which could have been a tree trunk, flying dog poop, or a huge mutilated hot dog. Both seemed to float in the air, neither was put to much use during the play, and both were so fascinating that one didn’t tire of looking at them.

The play had passion to spare: It involved a composer who, believing his lover had betrayed him, wrote a nasty opera about her. Reunited after several years, the composer realizes it was all a big misunderstanding, and here he is with a masterpiece dissing his own girlfriend! What to do? He axes the last scene of his opera. Then the girlfriend dies. And his opera is performed, as he wails in grief. The end. For many operas, the story lines aren’t paradigms of clarity, but so what?

The production was generally wonderful. Many of the scenes involved not just the protagonists, but a crowd of passers-by and hangers-out, who added responses to the solos and duets, and often took over the proceedings entirely. Janácek’s score is glorious, with many modern and dissonant touches, but enough old-school romantic melodicism to keep the pleasure points satisfied. And the chorus of boys and girls stayed totally goofy throughout, which added a nice counterpoint to the dead serious demeanor of the main characters.

Some of the staging seemed forced, like somebody’s trying a bit to hard to be Robert Wilson. What’s up with the whiteface and lipstick on all the men? And some of the mass uniform movement behind the solo singers was distracting and unnecessary.

The singing was outstanding, particularly the big ensemble numbers. Michael Hendrick, as Zivny, the composer, gained steam throughout the play to deliver a shattering closing aria. Paul Mow, in a fairly small role as Dr. Suda, shook the rafters every time he sang with his warm, round-tone tenor. And Linda Roark-Strummer, as the mother, stole every scene she was in.

What the opera didn’t have was a star, someone with the charismatic presence to suck you in and keep you there for a couple of weeks. But it served its purpose in spades—to introduce to America a great work by a musical genius who has been overlooked for far too long.

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