Opera Theatre of Weston's "Garden" in full bloom


Opera Theatre of Weston's "Garden" in full bloom

Special to the Journal

WESTON — Years ago, a former editor of mine told me that reviewing opera may be even trickier than staging it, and he emphasized that with respect and admiration for those who do the latter.

Today, I can follow his reasoning: there is a lot more theatre, musical and otherwise, than there is opera. As such, unless in a major metropolitan area, it sometimes becomes a treasured parchment on which a critic never gets to write.

And so I jumped at the chance to both preview and review the East Coast premiere of "The Secret Garden" by the Opera Theatre of Weston (OTW), because, in the words of costume designer Robina D'Arcy Fox, "opera is the professional wrestling of the arts world: big, emotional, juicy, searing."

Indeed, composer Nolan Gasser, with a libretto by Carey Harrison, took on the 1911 classic children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett – first staged on Broadway in 1991 - and debuted at the San Francisco Opera (SFO) in 2013.

The OTW production, with stage direction by Diana Stugger and musical direction by Angela Hines-Gooch, was actually the world premiere of the revised opera. Gasser and Harrison modified scenes and made other amendments to the SFO show. To then stage it in a small state such as Vermont was not only a coup for OTW, but also speaks to the professionalism of this company

"The Secret Garden" isn't just a children's tale, but a story for the ages: triumph over tragedy and the healing power of nature. The production was very family friendly, and easily appealed to every generation represented in the packed house.

The story involves 10-year old Mary Lennox (soprano L.R. Davidson), an orphan who comes to live with her uncle, widower Achibald Craven (bass baritone Christopher Besch) on the Yorkshire Moors.

He is away from the mysterious mansion for considerable chunks of time, and Mary is left in the care of housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (mezzo-soprano Peggy Telscher), chambermaid Martha Sowerby (soprano Mary Gresock) and her mother Susan (soprano Lindsey Paradise).

To add to the intrigue, at night Mary hears crying down one of the long dark corridors, which turns out to be her cousin Colin (tenor Pablo Cesar Bustos).

Mary seeks escape by exploring the gardens surrounding the property where she meets gardener Ben Weatherstaff (baritone Benjamin Bloomfield) and Martha's brother Dickon (tenor Christopher Lucier), but is unable to find access to the cryptic area, with its imposing surrounding walls.

Eventually, she discovers the key, and proceeds to enter a hidden world where unforeseen companionships and a new life blossoms, often accompanied by the presence of a Robin redbreast (youth apprentice/dancer Mary Anderson).

These professionals all delivered outstanding performances.

One of the issues with staging opera in smaller, intimate venues is that sometimes the orchestra drowns out the singing. This particularly happens with deeper pitched voices, such as Besch's earthy, lush tones. Still, he managed well through it.

Davidson, whose mellifluous singing delivered the bulk of the lyrics, masterfully pitched her way over some of the louder music, which greatly assisted the audience.

There was a considerable amount of terrific acting here by the cast, as well: absolutely no "park and bark." Gresock, Paradise and Weatherstaff offered up a number of delightfully animated moments.

For their part, Davidson and Bustos, who played the roles of children, were utterly convincing in their facial expressions and body language to convey the correct age. Bustos also drew tears from audience members when his own emotion flowed on first finding himself in his deceased mother's special place – as good a piece of acting as you'll find in any type of theatre.

The children cast members – part of OTW's Young Apprentice Program – played garden animals most capably, and Anderson's ballet dancing as the Robin was not only sublime in its execution, but scene-stealing.

The 10-piece orchestra under conductor Mary Westbrook-Geha hit their marks and accompanied the action with resonance and grace. Production and visual design by Naomi Kremer, creator of the enchanting digital backdrop from the SFO production, also used here, continued its excellent effect.

Lighting by David Lane was well designed, and not enough can be said of the understated elegance of costumes by Robina D'Arcy Fox.

As this opera moves on to a potential staging in 2017 at the Houston Grand Opera, and perhaps a smaller venue or two before, Glasser, Harrison and Kremer could consider physically adding the Robin to the very end of the final scene. Floating her in after the singers' last breaths to a single flute, and landing her on the picnic blanket in front of anyone, would be a bow on the ribbon of the final lyrics.

Unofficially, I polled four audience members in the lobby afterward to make sure I wasn't imaging this device, and three concurred: They loved the show, and were looking with anticipation for the Robin at the end to vanish from the backdrop and appear on stage.

Opera Theatre of Weston just might be Vermont's best kept performing arts secret. Let's hope its keepers continue these stellar productions, which contribute so much to our culture, and our humanity.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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