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Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

Pure Joy in Skylight Opera Premiere 'The Rivals'

Classical Review

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There is pure joy in Kirke Mechem's new comic opera The Rivals, premiered at Skylight Opera last Friday evening. Mechem's bubbly score sings. Voices take to it happily and gratefully.

Freely adapted from Richard Sheridan's 1775 play, Mechem (also the librettist) moved the setting from Bath, England, to Newport, R.I., circa 1900, among the ilk of the Astors and Vanderbilts. The musical style of this ensemble comedy is conservatively inventive, fluid and easy on the ear. Details of orchestration enrich the well-crafted score. Defined numbers emerge, some with Americana touches of the period, such as ragtime, music hall songs, and band shell concerts.

Though the entire piece is charming and enjoyable, Act I bogs down a bit with exposition, introducing most of the many characters with arias. Act II is more compact and better paced. Though musically estimable, the final ensemble after the resolution of all plot twists feels too extended.

The Skylight assembled an unusually good cast. All perform admirably, their voices freed by this excellent score. Each singing actor enjoys playing a sharply drawn, stylized character. Alicia Berneche brings Lydia to life with spontaneous, playful spirit. Few sopranos have her comedic gifts. Christopher Burchett plays Jack Absolute with panache, singing with especially clear diction in a high, bright baritone.

Diane Lane deliciously plays the eccentric Mrs. Malaprop. (The term “malapropism” was coined after this character's misfiring utterances.) Tenor Zach Borichevsky, as the comically pessimistic Nicholas Astor, has an exciting, multi-hued voice, made to sing Italian lyric roles. Katherine Pracht, as the earnest Julia, sings with both subtlety and refreshing forthrightness.

Matthew DiBattista's broadly comic Jasper was rightly played with a generous helping of ham, but also with fun-loving wit. As Sir Anthony, Robert Orth's singing was a lesson in clarity. The character of Baron von Hackenbock gets some of Mechem's catchiest music, sung with style by Andrew Wilkowske.

Dorothy Danner's energetic direction keeps things lively, if at times it errs on becoming too busy. Brian Hemesath's costumes capture the sumptuousness of the upper class with comic exaggeration. Richard Carsey assuredly leads the orchestra of 20 able players.
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