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February 28, 2011

Peabody Chamber Opera returns to the '50s via works by Bernstein, Hoiby

There was quite an operatic outbreak over the weekend in Baltimore and D.C. It started Friday night (for me) with Peabody Chamber Opera's double bill at the Theatre Project.

The focus of this production was on the '50s -- a work written during that era, Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti"; and a work evoking it, Lee Hoiby's "This is the Rill Speaking." (Talk of movies and movie-going pops up in both items, a little connective thread that adds to the aptness of pairing them.)

The Hoiby opera from 1992, inspired by a Lanford Wilson play, provides a slice of '50s Americana, with quick-moving vignettes introducing assorted rural characters. The piece sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary (a four-letter word gets tossed around; there are references to masturbation), but stylistically it's firmly in conservative, mid-century idioms -- the shadows of Copland and Barber are in the air.

Hoiby is best known for his songs, which have been championed by some great American classical vocal artists. The opera reflects the composer's melodic gifts, especially in the wistful closing moments. It isn't quite a seamless package, the net effect is quite effective.

The Peabody staging, directed with a mostly light touch by Jennifer Blades, featured

Katelyn Jackman (Mother/Allison), Joseph Harrell (Willy), Marie Marquis (Judy), Sonya Knussen (Maybelle/Peggy), David Diehl (Tommy/Manny), Jorge Ramirez-Sanchez (Keith/Earl/Father). The singing didn't always have a finished quality, but everyone was in the groove. Lee Mills conducted with clarity and contour, drawing a sensitive performance from the orchestral ensemble.

Whether Hoiby's opera enters the mainstream remains to be seen. Bernstein's is a certified classic, a masterpiece of music theater, wonderfully concise and telling. This look at a suburban couple with issues and communication problems seems as fresh today as it must have been in 1952.

Jackman, as Dinah, and Peter Tomaszewski, as Sam, got firmly into their characters and sang with considerable nuance and communicative weight. Jackman's otherwise admirable diction slipped in Dinah's big aria, but she acted out this tale of a seeing "terrible movie" with elan.

Harrell, who got a chance to reveal his abdominal "Situation" as well as his smooth vocal styling, joined Diehl and Stephanie Miller to form the jazzy Trio that moves in Greek Chorus fashion though the opera with the kind of snap and wit that only Bernstein could have devised. Blair Skinner's conducting proved to be remarkably fluid and expressive; the orchestra responded in kind.

Blades kept things flowing with a subtle theatrical spark. Thom Bumblauskas designed the set that served both operas efficiently and evocatively.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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