By Russ Bickerstaff
Based on the original play by Molière, Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe is one of the most successful contemporary American operas ever written. A competent realization of Molière’s classic tale, the Skylight Opera Theatre’s production closes this coming weekend.
Set in ancient France, the story tells the tale of a wealthy man named Orgon (David Barron) who has befriended a man named Tartuffe (John Muriello) whom he believes to be a thoroughly pious man of God. His family tries its best to convince Orgon of his foolishness as he heaps wealth praise on Tartuffe and generally makes a colossal fool out of himself.
It’s a long and twisting plot that lends itself well to modern opera. The excessive dramatics and overarching themes of deceit, love and such all work exceedingly well in opera. While some of the finer, more subtle moments in Molière’s brilliant comedy are lost in the adaptation, the story gains a certain emotional depth in song that isn’t explicit in dialogue alone.
The Skylight cast deliver on some of the stronger moments Mechem has adapted for the opera. David Barron makes for a likeable Orgon. Alice Berneche is quite brilliant as his daughter Mariane. The scene between the two of them when he asks her to marry Tartuffe is one of the most memorable in the entire production. A lot of its strength rests quite squarely in the anxiety pouring out of Berneche as she directly faces the audience in not so subtle reaction to what her father is asking of her. Berneche’s voice is beautiful, but it’s the rest of her performance that beautifully rounds out a role that isn’t nearly as impressive in previous non-musical productions. Danielle Hermon Wood also puts in a memorable performance as Dorine, Orgon’s maid and Mariane’s friend who schemes to stop the wedding arrangements with Tartuffe and decisively rid the household of him. Dorine is often quite clearly the sharpest character onstage. Wood makes this intelligence seem organic and effortless.
Production elements of Tartuffe are everything one would expect out of a big budget Skylight production. Costuming is lush without being overpowering. Lighting by Cynthia Stilllings provides the comfortable illusion of physical depth that is not actually present on stage. Van Santvoord’s set design adds considerably to the illusion of depth as well as scenic elements rotate to change settings. It’s a trick that isn’t at all new, but Santvoord’s design uses rotating set mechanics in a way that seems remarkably fresh. Scenic elements fit together so well that it scarcely seems as though they were designed to move they way they do during scene changes. It all seems very natural when the song and plot have settled over the stage between changes of setting. VS
The Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Tartuffe runs now through February 11 at the roadway Theatre Center. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at 414-291-7605 or online at www.skylightopera.com.