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Previn’s Sophomore Effort is Unrequited Opera

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
05/01/2009 -  & May 3, 5, 7, 9
André Previn: Brief Encounter
Robert Orth (Albert Godby), Meredith Arwady (Myrtle Bagot), Alicia Gianni (Beryl), Rebekah Camm (Dolly Messiter), Elizabeth Futral (Laura Jesson), Nathan Gunn (Alec Harvey), Kim Josephson (Fred Jesson), Adam Cioffari (Stanley), James J. Kee (Dr. Graves), Jamie Barton (Mary Norton), Faith Sherman (Mrs. Rolandson)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (conductor)
John Caird (director), Bunny Christie (set and costume designer), Paul Pyant (lighting designer)

E. Futral & N. Gun (© Felix Sanchez)

With the enormous amount of star power behind HGO’s 39th world premiere, it is a bold assertion to say that the biggest stars of the night were John Caird and Bunny Christie, both in their HGO debuts. Brief Encounter is a masterpiece of stagecraft, with an imaginative and well-executed visual conception that is easily the most memorable aspect of the production. This isn’t to denigrate the overall effectiveness of the Previn-Gunn-Futral trifecta, or the masterful playing and conducting that came from the pit, but, especially in terms of musical architecture, it became clear as the opera went on that, had Caird and Christie not produced such an engaging and richly detailed visual component, this could have been a lengthy, interminable encounter indeed.

The story is likely familiar to many from the 1945 film of the same name, adapted from Noël Coward’s one-act play Still Life. John Caird, pulling double duty as librettist and director, expanded the original play into two lopsided acts. The first, at nearly an hour and a half, is perhaps purposely frustrating in design. In over a dozen scenes, we get various degrees of character development. Laura is especially well-explored, given many solo arias and interacts most with the other characters. On the other hand, Alec and especially Fred are presented as somewhat one-dimensional personalities. There is almost no true “action”, but an enormous amount of latent conflict is steadily built up. The second act, at less than 45 minutes, is dramatic and condensed. While it is too hurried to fully tie up all the loose ends that have been introduced, its continuity is more apparent and it seems that more care was taken in editing out the inessential elements in both words and music. The end result is a somewhat lumbering first act, particularly in musical terms, followed by a taut second act. One can only imagine the endless challenges this must have created for the singers in devising a long-scale arc for their characters in the first act and the relief after intermission, when the more “operatic” pacing and content returned them to their comfort zones.

Musically, Previn has done what film composers do best, accessing a potpourri of musical styles to evoke specific dramatic action. While there are several extended solo arias for Laura and Alec, as well as a soliloquy for Fred in the middle of the second act that approaches a true “hit”, the most memorable tune, woven throughout the entire opera, is a quote from Bernstein’s Candide (“Make Our Garden Grow”). There are glimmers of a love duet and a trio in the second act, but neither is fleshed out well enough to approach the echelon of the great operatic ensemble pieces. Previn’s unabashed switches from fin de siècle lushness to Expressionist outbursts to echoes of American minimalism (and everything in between) is, in a way, impressive, but the pastiche eventually makes the music feel too subordinated to the text and staging. One wishes that the amount of foresight and economy that went into the visual conception was equaled in the music. Caird and Christie stir up a great variety of emotions in the scenes on the bridge on Eden Lock using simple and striking variations on the same set. This parsimoniousness is out of line with Previn’s extravagant, meandering compositional style, and this makes the recurring Bernstein quote seem an almost apologetic attempt by Previn to give the score some unity. One moment where all artistic forces aligned, however, was in the reconceived return of the opera’s opening scene near the end of the second act. Here, all involved produced a powerful effect, with the recapitulation interrupted cinematically by stopped action and white lighting as Laura interjected her feelings at the moment.

From a vocal standpoint, the show belongs to Elizabeth Futral. She is in excellent voice, fearlessly tackling some demandingly jagged writing and having plenty of endurance for a lengthy role. Nathan Gunn exceeds high expectations, charismatic and vocally suave as Alec. The two are convincing lovers, conveying a lustful chemistry tainted by guilt in their wonderful ability to switch from full-voiced, passionate singing to fragile vulnerability. Kim Josephson is well-cast as Fred. His mature voice is slightly stretched by the role, but his acting is a study in conveying character development. In smaller roles, Meredith Arwady is a standout, with a rich, flexible contralto voice whose returns to stage were eagerly awaited. She and Robert Orth provided excellent comic repartee. Rebekah Camm as Dolly negotiated a very wordy part well, though one wished her voice had a bit more brashness in it. As it was, she came off a little too soft-spoken to be the Chatty Cathy that she is supposed to be.

Theatrically, Brief Encounter is thoroughly enjoyable, with excellent production values from all involved. Operatically, the piece is somewhat frustrating. Caird has provided Previn with an excellent libretto that provides ample opportunity for a tightly-woven score to express the deep feelings of the characters, but the composers seems to have overindulged. The potency of the story would come across more if the music, like the staging, fit together more cogently and had more stylistic consistency.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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