THE BASICS: THE MEDIUM and THE TELEPHONE, two operas by Gian Carlo Menotti, written in English, conducted by Nick DelBello, stage directed by Joseph S. Spann, presented in a double bill format by Buffalo Opera Unlimited, Friday, June 2nd at 7:30 pm and Saturday, June 3rd at 5:00 pm in the Warren Enters Theatre in Upton Hall at Buffalo State University (enter Iroquois Road and follow the “OPERA” signs on campus). Tickets (and complimentary ice water) at the door. This is not a student production. Tickets are $35 General, $25 Seniors, $10 Students For information, contact (716) 882-1692 or visit www.buffalooperaunlimited.org/
THUMBNAIL SKETCHES: In THE MEDIUM, a tragic opera, a phony but successful medium, “Madame Flora,” is conducting a séance when she herself feels “touched” (actually grabbed around the neck). She becomes obsessed with this memory and by the end of the opera has accused then shot her innocent young assistant.
In THE TELEPHONE, a comic opera, a young man is trying to propose, but every time he’s about to pop the question, she is digital-device-distracted, answering the telephone or, in this updated version her cellphone, or looking something up on her iPad, or responding to an email on her laptop. Finally, he has an inspiration and calls her from the street on his cell phone, and digging her “Princess” phone out of the couch cushions, she says yes, on what we might call an actual telepone.
Certainly, both gun violence and people overly focused on their digital devices are two topics that remain quite contemporary.
RUNTIME: Two hours with one intermission
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Everything about this double bill is first-rate. It’s only up for two performances, which is the fate of opera these days. If it were a musical presented by, say, Second Generation Theatre (and the whole evening had a very satisfying 2nd Gen vibe) or perhaps MusicalFare or The Kavinoky, it would have a successful multi-week run. So musical theater peeps, if you want to see an opera, this would be a great way to start. It will feel “right.” The music is accessible, the voices are clear and bright, the acting is quite realistic, the plots are easy to follow, and it’s sung in English.
The 13-person chamber pit orchestra (actually on a raised platform to the audience’s right) was the best that BOU and Orchestral Contractor Carl Lam have assembled in my memory. It’s your basic wind quintet plus string quintet expanded by trumpet, percussion, and piano and they gave composer Menotti’s music a whole lotta love. It’s a tricky score in that every part is “exposed” meaning that no instrumentalist can “hide” behind a big orchestra. Yes, there are some sweeping lyrical passages, but for the most part, it’s a series of charming little musical explosions one after the other. Conductor Nick DelBello was on top of things.
If all you’ve ever seen of Menotti’s 25 operas is an amateur production of his Christmas opera AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS and you think that “once you’ve seen one night visitor you’ve seen ‘em all” [rim-shot] then this will be an ear-opening treat. His music sounds very much like that of Samuel Barber with whom you may be more familiar. This is no surprise since they were partners for many years. And both were “out” composers, making this a very appropriate choice for Pride Month.
The set by David King was ideal, with an enormous circular object against the back wall in THE MEDIUM which at first looked like a mandala or zodiac wheel (or a clock with no hands) but when illuminated from behind during the séance was both spooky and stunning. In the second opera, THE TELEPHONE, it became a circular window through which we saw a hyper-realistic telephone pole. None of that would have worked without the excellent lighting by Harry Mandris. Costumes were by Artie-Award-winning Jenna Damberger who designs all around town. Daniel Warman was the stage manager.
L-R Andrea Bickford, Daniel Kamalic, Joelle Lachance
Gabrielle LaBare over Kate Fruchterman as AJ Governettio crouches in fear
Photos by Lee Ann Grace
Without a doubt, soprano Gabrielle LaBare as “Madame Flora” the title character in THE MEDIUM was a force to be reckoned with. Her big voice was able to match and soar over the orchestra. As much as I loved the orchestra, some singers were not quite as able to rise above it as I would have liked. My strong advice when you go this afternoon is to sit as close as possible to the stage. That’s where I moved to after intermission. Not only will the balance of voices and pit be better but, since heat rises and the Enters Theatre isn’t air-conditioned, it’s cooler down in front.
Kate Fruchterman sang “Monica,” the medium’s dutiful daughter, with a beautiful crystalline voice. I would have appreciated super-titles since a lot of her words were drowned out by the orchestra. Again, my advice is to sit down front. High school student AJ Govenettio, just a senior at Williamsville South, was Toby, her mute assistant, with some serious acting chops. We hope to see him around for a while. Andrea Bickford, Daniel Kamalić, and Joelle Lachance, rounded out the cast admirably as the séance attendees.
The acting was first rate and considerable credit goes to Joseph S. Spann for staging that worked organically and didn’t seem at all, well…. “stagey.”
THE TELEPHONE cast includes Julia Anne Cordani and Christopher Wagner. Cordani was an absolute delight as “Lucy,” the ditzy distracted young woman who just can’t get her nose and her mind out of the damn phone! Never missing a beat while singing with a clear, sparkling soprano, she jumps, leaps, spins, and tumbles over furniture, as well as over her boyfriend “Ben.” Mr. Wagner’s voice is pleasing, but his vocal role here is not designed to compete with Lucy’s but mostly to bear it all stoically with an occasional exasperated eye roll. Besides excellent staging, Spann slightly updated the script (seamlessly I might add) to include references to “digital” and “fiber optics” etc. which got a lot of laughs from the audience.
Julia Anne Cordani as Lucy in a frothy dress for a bubbly character, costumes by Jenna Damberger
Christopher Wagner as Ben, Julia Anne Cordani as Lucy
Julia Anne Cordani as Lucy, Christopher Wagner as Ben, set by David King
Photos by Lee Ann Grace
Note: this double bill is not at the larger, traditional BOU Rockwell Hall theater space. And I know that for many of us, the thought of finding your way anywhere on a college campus is daunting. But they’ve made it easy. Enter the Buffalo State campus off Elmwood Avenue at the Iroquois Drive entrance, immediately south of the Scajaquada Expressway (Route 198). Don’t go to Rockwell Road. Enter at Iroquois Drive. Parking is available in lots all along Iroquois Drive. AND THERE ARE “OPERA” SIGNS WITH ARROWS POSTED ABOUT EVERY 100 YARDS. Parking Lot I-37 is located adjacent to the handicap-accessible entrance to Upton Hall and the Enters Theatre (follow the red arrow on the campus map). You can also enter Upton to access the Enters Theatre from Lots I-34 and I-35, but this entrance is not handicap-accessible (see the red dot on the campus map).
Lead image: L-R Gabrielle LaBare, Daniel Kamalic, Joelle Lachance, Andrea Bickford
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
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