ATTENTION PLEASE: THE SHOW REVIEWED BELOW, A NEW OPERA: THE GARDEN OF MARYTRS IS SOLD OUT, BUT:Pat Krol has four tickets available for the 3pm performance. Please call Pat directly at 413-773-3592.
The Garden of Martyrs, an opera with music by Eric Sawyer and libretto by Harley Erdman, based on a novel by Michael C. White. Directed by Vernon Hartman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Act III - Keith Phares, William Hite, Alan Schneider; photo: Jon Crispin
"Where is the comfort in this place of darkness?"
Vernon Hartman; photo provided
When a lead-in quote is a question, as above, then there is either a dead end ahead or a way through the morass of human messiness to a better ending. In the new opera, "The Garden of Martyrs" having its world premiere weekend at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is also the location for the opera’s story, attempts to show us the way through. While it is a dead end for two of its principal characters it is the pathway for the unanticipated protagonist.
Two men, Irish immigrants, in 1806, were hanged as convicted killers in Northampton’s "Pancake Plain" in front of a local crowd of 15,000 people. From the gallows the men maintained their innocence, and in spite of new evidence brought to light by the wife of one of the men which was discounted by the Governor, they were not granted a stay of execution but lost their lives. Their funeral oration, delivered before their hanging, was offered by a Catholic French priest who had come to hear their confessions and grant them absolution, Father Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus who went on to become the first Bishop of Boston four years later. It is Father Cheverus who emerges as the lead character in the opera though he was only a bit player in the lives of the two executed men.
The story brings to mind two other men executed in Massachusetts and wrongly tried, Sacco and Vanzetti. It also brings to my mind the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay about the reaction of common people to that event, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts." In a history repeats itself genre, these two stories are now one for me. Four men convicted of crimes because of their beliefs and their foreign ways a century apart, and each pair inspiring works that move the mind and the heart simultaneously in the same state in the same way says something very serious about the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This time the lecturing of our leaders comes with exciting, lyrical music which adds a veritable undertow of sound which sweeps the listener under the briny sea that sweeps inland to swallow up the negative history of human indiscretions.
The librettist of this piece has based the play on a novelization of these events with which I am not yet familiar (I bought the book in the lobby and will read it soon, but not soon enough for this review). Harley Erdman has successfully separated out his charcters through their own words, their way of speaking, their use of words. Cheverus, for example, uses the word "yes" to alter his statements into verifiable questionings. It has a foreign inclination to it. It marks him as someone apart from his fellow creatures. Dominic Daley has an Irish lyricism about him and his friend and partner Jamy Halligan is a gruff talker with a "take no prisoners" angle to his speech. James Sullivan, an Irish-bred Attorney General has an implied, learned elegance to his verbal patterning. Erdman never once loses his characters which is a most wonderful aspect of this sung play. Eyes closed you can tell who is saying something.
His terse and terrific libretto is matched in the tonal qualities of Eric Sawyer’s music. It is almost too bad that this is not a ballad-opera where you can leave the theater with a new tune stuck in your head. Instead it is a through-composed play wherein the words are sung and the music is sweet and strong and sometimes stunning, as in back to the wall-knees weak stunning. He composes with a lyric quality but without the need for a hit song to emerge. His orchestrations are full and reek of Poulenc and Weill and Stravinsky and Schoenberg and with the melodic quality over the strident and angular accompaniment Sawyer produces musical imagery that is simply spectacular. As the plot twists bring up memories of other works, the music stirs up the concepts of "Dialogues of the Carmelites," "Aufstieg and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny," "The Rake’s Progress" and "Pelleas and Melisande."
Baritone Vernon Hartman performs double duty with this opera, singing the pivotal role of Attorney General James Sullivan and staging the work in which he plays a major role. He has been assisted by Sheila Siragusa whose wonderful direction has been commented on by this reviewer in the past. Between them they have created a tense drama in which confrontation after confrontation takes place without repetition in look or feel, without anything brought over from one pairing to another. There are times when it actually feels as though something real has just happened on the stage. There are some problems in the choral staging and in the separation of clearly solo lines from a choral presentation of them, but this can be fixed in subsequent productions and I hope it will be done. However, like the Metropolitan Opera, the chorus sounds great and looks fine, but their tendency to move in groups is as alarming as ever.
This limited run production has the excellent help of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kevin Rhodes. The design team of Ed Check (sets), Emily Dunn (costumes) and Margo Cadell (lighting) has enhanced the experience while the choreography by Wendy Woodson brings in the excellent talents of Geoff Hermann and adds dancing skills to the singing of Kari Lyon.
Amy Johnson plays the female lead, Finola Daley, with style and vocal qualities that make her both sympathetic and quixotic simultaneously. Finola has a single goal, to save her husband, and she is rigidly single-minded about it. Johnson lets her emotions through, aided by the music, and yet we can sense that there is more at work in the character than just what we’re allowed to see. It makes her beautiful presentation even more enthralling.
Her husband, Dom, is presented by an eager tenor named Alan Schneider. His voice is both engaging and lyrical and he can act as well. His partner Jamy is played with a baritone’s conviction by Keith Phares that he dispenses with in his third act scene with Father Cheverus. In their scenes together these two singers’ voices give them easy distinction, but in their moments with other people, there is a unique transition to character singing that provides strength to the center of the opera’s drama.
Chrystal E. Williams deftly assumes the role of Yvette, Cheverus’ housekeeper from Guadaloupe who seems to inject French, or Island French, into her communication with him and with the outer world and gives it her mezzo-soprano all. It is very nice interpretive work. Kari Lyon and Marjorie Melnick add two more specific characters as Jamy’s former Irish sweetheart and a Northampton widow who aids Finola. Dorie Goldman shines through as a 14 year old boy whose testimony hangs Jamy and Dominic.
But it is the power of Hartman as the A.G. and William Hite as Cheverus that holds the opera together. Each man has unique vocal and dramatic qualities that make their roles so powerful. Hartman has weight in his voice and a visual sensibility to match. When he invokes his official power there is a manifest destiny attitude about him that is supported in his still strong and youthful vocal presentation. It is a delight to hear him in such a strong and well-defined part.
Hite is amazing. That’s the only way to describe this role and his work in it. Cheverus is a demanding stage role and Hite has the sustainability to handle it. He brings many things to bear here, including a perfect tone and a splendidly interpretive attack on the role. His third act confession aria with Jamy’s interpolations is a show-stopper and rightfully so as it is the moment that affords him a solo bow at the curtain call, a well-deserved one. This role could be the one for which he is remembered.
This world premiere was a surprise delight. It is sold out so you can’t see it, but you can always try. Reportedly another production in Connecticut in 2014 will give you a chance. Pray they don’t recast it, because I cannot imagine a better bunch of people for it.
Amy Johnson; photo provided
William Hite; photo provided
Playing for one more performance only at the Academy of Music at 274 North Street, Northampton it is unlikely that there are tickets, but call the box office anyway at 413-584-9032 ext 105 or look on line at www.academyofmusictheatre.com.