San Francisco Opera Season Opens with Unusual Choice
War Memorial Opera House
09/06/2003 - Performances on 6, 10, 13, 17, 21 and 26, September, 2003
Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All
Luana DeVol (Susan B. Anthony), Stephanie Novacek (Anne), Judith Christin (Gertrude Stein), Beau Palmer (Virgil Thomson), Jeffrey Wells (Daniel Webster), Jeffrey Lentz (Jo the Loiterer), Troy Cook (Chris the Citizen), Beth Clayton (Indiana Elliot), Ethan Herschenfeld (Indiana Elliot’s brother), Anna Christy (Angel More), Karen Slack (Henrietta M.), Ricardo Herrera/Roberto Perlas Gomez (Henry B.), John Duykers (John Adams), Jonathan Boyd (Thaddeus Stevens), Bruce Baumer (Anthony Comstock), Wendy Hill (Constance Fletcher), Katherine Rohrer (Isabel Wentworth), Zheng Cao (Anna Hope), Dana Beth Miller (Lillian Russell), Jill Grove (Jenny Reefer), Shawnette Sulker (Negro Woman), Oren Gradus (Ulysses S. Grant), David Ossenfort (Andrew Johnson), Jo Vincent Parks (Gloster Heming/Negro Man), Brad Alexander (Herman Atlan), Daniel Okulitch (Donald Gallup)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Stage Director: Christopher Alden
The Mother of Us All is an unconventional opera to begin with. And while it became the San Francisco Opera’s opening night production only because the intended opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, was scratched due to budget constraints, it was certainly an unconventional choice with which to open the season. The opera’s central figure is Susan B. Anthony and it centers on her struggle for women’s suffrage. But there is no linear plot and the scenes weave together historical figures and situations that make this an opera more about ideas and issues than about any individuals or personalities. As a result, its appeal is more intellectual than emotional, and the words count for as much as the music.
Right from the start it was clear that the production by Christopher Alden was not going to be opera as usual. There was not even the traditional entrance of the conductor, Maestro Donald Runnicles, into the pit to be greeted with warm applause. This was Opera as Theatre in a bold, imaginative way and with a bold, imaginative opera.
Alden’s staging was a nimble match for Gertrude Stein’s libretto. Both were quirky, inventive, illuminating and highly individualistic. At the same time, the set and costume designs by Gabriel Berry reflected Virgil Thomson’s score as the each seemed to take familiar, recognizable, accessible elements and re-arrange them in unexpected, subtly modified ways to give the work continual freshness and appeal. All in all, it was a brilliant matching of production team and subject matter.
Equally well matched were the singers to their respective roles. The care and attention with which the opera was cast resulted in a production without a single weak link and with many fine performances. The entire cast exhibited exemplary diction, making most of the text understandable. Occasionally it was helpful to have the projected text available for reference, but that was more a result of the composition than the performance.
First among the performers was certainly Luana deVol as Susan B. DeVol has had a major career in Europe for many years now, and has been singing principal roles including Isolde and Brunnhilde. At this stage of her career, the voice occasionally shows some wear and tear, but it is a small price to pay for the rich attention to detail and musical care with which she performs. The controlled dynamics throughout her range and the clear projection of both tone and text made for a compelling performance. DeVol’s commanding stage presence was understated and intelligent, never wasting a gesture or losing focus. The role of Susan B dominates the opera and DeVol dominated the production. She is a tall, imposing woman with a strong, graceful bearing and her larger-than-life performance perfectly suited Stein and Thomson’s creation.
There were many stand out performances among the rest of the cast as well. Jeffrey Wells’ Daniel Webster combined authoritative singing and presence. Judith Christin’s Gertrude Stein was exemplary both for her straightforward singing and her physicalization of the role. Jeffrey Lentz imbued the role of Jo the Loiterer with a wealth of details giving the character depth and humanity. Beth Clayton’s Indiana Elliot, Jill Grove’s Jenny Reefer and Beau Palmer’s Virgil Thomson were all standouts for their extraordinary vocal presences. Dana Beth Miller was an exuberant Lillian Russell, Anna Christy was a touching presence as Angel More and Troy Cook’s Chris the Citizen was distinctly drawn individual. As Susan B’s companion, Anne, Stephanie Novacek made much with an understated performance in her few scenes.
In the pit, Donald Runnicles lead a tautly drawn, firmly paced performance. On rare occasions the orchestra threatened to overpower soloists, but for the most part the balance kept the voices prominent. Runnicles brought out the score’s rhythmic nuances and melodic playfulness to match the text’s droll humor.
Despite reports of audiences leaving in droves on opening night, on the evening of the performance reviewed, it appeared that there were few, if any people leaving at intermission. They were rewarded with an intriguing, illuminating production of a unique, if imperfect opera and a first-rate performance.