"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" presented by New York City Opera at the David Koch Theatre, April 28, 2011
I always find it exciting when established artists attempt a new direction with their art. Case in point, the new ballet that Paul McCartney is composing for New York City Ballet announced this spring.
Similarly, Stephen Schwartz, composer of musical theatre works Godspell, Pippin and Wicked announced his first opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon sounded like an interesting turn for his career. Having performed in a (very bad) community production of Godspell, and having seen Wicked several years ago, I am familiar with Mr. Schwartz' style and was looking forward to seeing and hearing how it evolved for the opera stage.
His story choice is full of opportunity for dramatic musical interpretation. Myra Foster (Lauren Flanigan), a commercially unsuccessful medium and her more than devoted husband Bill (Kim Josephson) are hatching a plan to bring Myra's talents to light and boost her reputation and fame. The plan is to kidnap the young daughter (Bailey Grey) of a local wealthy family (Todd Wilander and Melody Moore). Myra would then turn up and offer psychic assistance to locate the child and return her to her family safe and sound. The ransom money collected would be donated to charity.
Myra's connection to the other side is her son, Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo), who died as a child. His assistance with Myra's regular group of believers is fleeting and only accurate on rare occasions. Bill is reluctant to go along with Myra's plot, but loves her more than he fears the risk of it. Once the girl is nabbed, the Inspector Watts (Phillip Boykin) turns out to be a believer and seeks Myra's help.
I won't spoil the plot, but suffice to say, things don't work out as planned, though Myra does finally have a successful channeling episode that combines the spiritual moment with her own confession.
Mr. Schwartz' score strays pretty far from his usual style for the stage, unfortunately. This Seance features stereotypical contemporary opera styling, substituting bland dissonance for the skillful use of leitmotif to define character. There are one or two arias that speak more to what Mr. Schwartz does best, both in Act II. Bill sings "You Didn't Know Her" lamenting over the woman he first fell in love with, who she might have been and how she used to be. Mr. Josephson's interpretation is touching and heartfelt, elevating the proceedings, if only briefly. Ms. Moore's Rita Clayton also sings of the hope she feels from Adriana's spirit while she's being held captive by the Fosters. She sings beautifully, capturing the fear and emotion of a mother overwhelmed with worry about her missing child. Ms. Flanigan's Myra suffers from the insufficient score, though she gives a thoroughly committed performance.
Mr. Schwartz' son Scott directs, but doesn't seem to add much to the production. Chorus and principals are starkly segregated except in those few scenes when Myra ventures out of the house, or when Bill snatches Adriana.
Heidi Ettinger's translucent house set and chain link curtains are the most successful element in this staging. Alejo Vietti's costumes suffice, though the black and white attire for the chorus does remind me of Vicki Mortimer's design for the Roundabout's revival of Nine in 2003.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon continues at NYCO through May 1.