« Last-minute Sunday music suggestions | Main | A memorable performance of Mozart's Requiem from Handel Choir of Baltimore »

May 16, 2011

Puccini meets 'Night of the Living Dead' in Opera Vivente production

Opera Vivente is wrapping up its 13th season -- and its residency at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon -- with an imaginative production of Puccini's first work for the stage.

Performed in English as "The Will-o-the-Wisps" (in Italian, it was first called "Le Willis," then "Le Villi"), this opera has never gained a foothold in the repertoire, understandably.

For one thing, it has a weak-as-water libretto -- the sweet Anna dies of a broken heart while waiting for boyfriend Robert to come back from a journey to claim an inheritance; by the time he does return, she's one of the will-o-the-wisps (a pack of other un-dead, jilted, angry women) and lures him to his death.

There's no character development to speak of, and not really much of what you'd call action. At about 60 minutes in length, the piece just doesn't develop enough musical or theatrical steam.

But, hey, no opera is perfect (well, maybe a couple). And the shortcomings clearly don't bother Opera Vivente general director John Bowen; this is his second staging of the work in less than a decade. Besides, even the not-yet-mature Puccini knew how to compose some wonderfully soaring melodies and to construct some vivid orchestral passages. So this is definitely an opera worth exploring.

In 2002, Bowen gave the piece a Scottish setting. This time, he offers a more effective angle, transplanting the paltry plot to ...

contemporary bayou country, where the appearance of vampire-like ladies in white night gowns somehow fits right in (Thomas Bumblauskas designed the atmospheric set, Melanie Clark the costumes).

By the last scene, when belatedly repentant Robert comes back to the sticks, it seems that all the characters, including Anna's father and the local townsfolk, have gone over to to dark side -- we're talking "Night of the Living Dead," the swamp edition. Cool.

An especially telling bit of stage business comes during an orchestral interlude. Rather than a funeral procession revealing Anna's death (as was done when the opera was new in 1884), Bowen has neighbors coming and going from the house, paying their respects to Anna's father. 

Friday night's performance found the cast in uniformly ardent form (I wish diction had been as consistent). Lisa Eden conveyed Anna's anguish persuasively. The soprano's tone tended to turn edgy under pressure, but her phrasing hit home.

Kenneth Gayle brought his familiar impassioned style (and limited dynamic range) to the tole of Robert, digging vividly into the prolonged Act 2 solo, one of Puccini's most striking touches in the score.

Nathan Wentworth didn't always produce a smooth sound, but the baritone offered an effective portrayal of Anna'a father, William.

The chorus was in more or less steady form. As the will-o-the-wisps, members of the Baltimore School for the Arts, choreographed by Anton T. Wilson's choreography, writhed spookily.

The full richness of Puccini's orchestration requires large forces to unleash, but conductor JoAnn Kulesza drew quite a lot of sound out of the small, efficient ensemble, and she shaped the music with admirable sensitivity.

Opera Vivente heads next season to the Maryland State Boychoir's venue on Norman Ave. The season will include "The Marriage of Figaro," "Ariodante" and "The Bartered Bride" (done in Bawl'mor-ese).


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


I saw this presentation on friday the 13th of May. Enjoyed it very much it's an up and coming Opera Co.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected