Tom Strini

The Skylight’s clever, tuneful “The Rivals” is a hit

By - Sep 17th, 2011 01:05 am
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Katherine Pracht and Alicia Berneche in “The Rivals.” Skylight photo.

Wealthy people with too much time on their hands make for classic comedy. Kirke Mechem’s The Rivals, which the Skylight Opera Theatre premiered Friday night, is an instant classic comic opera.

The opera, which updates Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play to Newport, R.I., in 1900, breaks no musical ground. But Mechem’s firmly tonal music abounds with beautiful and jaunty tunes that align neatly with plot and character.

Lydia Larkspur, for example, is enamored of the notion of Romantic poverty in general and la vie bohème in particular. So Mechem bathed her music in Mimi’s glow. Several melodies relate directly to plot and period. Jasper Vanderbilt, a wealthy, backslapping bumpkin, struts and sings Ragtime. The gloomy Nicholas Astor’s signature tune sounds like a brooding Russian folksong.

Mechem is not always so obviously allusive, but each of the nine (count ’em!) principals has a distinct musical profile. This helps us sort them out, and the music fleshes out their characters. Furthermore, he develops, combines and re-uses these musical ideas ingeniously. When Jack Absolute, the leading man, reads a love letter from Julia to Nicholas Astor, he sings Julia’s music. The elements of Mechem’s music accumulate meaning and richness through their iterations.

Mechem is also his own librettist, and rarely have words fit music so well. Sheridan invented Mrs. Malaprop for this comedy, and Mechem managed his declamation and orchestration to make her pretentious mangling of English deliciously clear.

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Susan Wiedmeyer looks on as Diane Lane and Christopher Burchett advance their schemes in “The Rivals.” Skylight photo.

Mezzo Diane Lane had something to do with that. Her timing and elocution prompted many of the big laughs in this opera, along with a gawky demeanor and wide-eyed credulity that said: Middle-aged woman who still thinks like a teenage airhead.

What a cast of singing comedians Bill Theisen assembled for this premiere! Alicia Berneche (Lydia) plays the dreamy ingenue opposite Jack Absolute, and Katherine M. Pracht (Julia) plays the exasperated one opposite the maddeningly melancholy Nick Astor. Berneche and Pracht also play close cousins, and the way they lounge about together makes it easy to imagine them as little girls tumbling down together for their naps. They were sweet, funny, and in superb voice throughout the opera.

But then, so was the whole cast. Mechem gives all nine named characters multiple moments in the sun, and no one in this marvelous cast got burned.

Zach Borichevsky fully bought into Astor’s absurd doubt and made it fully ridiculous. Early on, Julia describes Jasper as “looking like a jockey,” and Matthew DiBattista ran with it. DeBattista springs about the stage on bow legs and belts out his lines in a nasal twang, and he is funny 100% of the time. Robert Orth allowed Sir Anthony Absolute not only tyrannical rages, but also outsized delight when things went his way. Baron von Hackenbock is an outright clown of a character, and Andrew Wilkowske went with that. All these characters hustle, bustle, swoon and sob. In contrast, Christine Robertson, as the go-between maid who makes her silly masters pay, sings and acts with toss-it-off ease. Baritone Christopher Burchett played Jack Absolute like one of those affable, smart, yet inexplicably befuddled fellows Bob Hope played in farcical movies in the late 1930s and 40s. His timing and his way of playing off his colleagues made for some great comedy.

Dorothy Danner directed. She imposed nothing on this libretto, but brought out all of its possibilities of character-based comedy. She also has a knack for wedding the physical action to the music in subtle ways; this opera has rhythm, in every sense. Lisa Schlenker’s nifty revolve set helps to move it along (but the carpenters really must do something about those sliding doors). Conductor Richard Carsey kept the pace just right and balanced the orchestra to let the words come through. That’s good; you don’t want to miss the punchlines.

The Rivals runs through Oct. 2 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center. For schedule and ticket information, call the BTC box office, (414) 291-7800, or visit the Skylight website.

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The help — Jill Anna Ponasik, Nathan Wesselowski, Christine Robertson (seated), Susan Wiedmeyer and David Flores — parody their employers. Skylight photo.

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