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Opera Theatre of St. Louis enjoys high success rate

Opera Theatre of St. Louis, now in its 11th season, has risen to prominence as a regional company of exceptional accomplishment. Not only did former director Richard Gaddes find a splendid theater to perform in -- the Loretto-Hilton Centre on the campus of Webster University -- but he created a forum for young singers of particular promise that gave them professional surroundings, excellent conductors, and imaginatively conceived productions.

This season is the first under the direction of the troika of Charles MacKay (general director), Colin Graham (artistic director and director of productions), and John Nelson (music director).

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Their ambitious season includes the American premi`ere of Rossini's ``The Journey to Reims'' [reviewed June 19 in these pages], a new performing version f Offenbach's ``The Tales of Hoffmann,'' a bold rethinking of Mozart's ``The Abduction From the Seraglio,'' and the first revival of William Mayer's 1983 opera, ``A Death in the Family.''

Opera Theatre is more than a performance organization; it is an environment.

The campus that surrounds the Loretto-Hilton is grassy, shaded by noble trees, and framed by graceful English Tudoresque buildings.

The 900 patrons sit on three sides of the thrust stage; the theater is also small enough to allow young voices to be heard without forcing.

The productions are usually superbly designed.

I could not chose a ``best'' among John Conklin's black, gold, and ivory Art Nouveau settings for ``Hoffmann,'' Kevin Rupnik's austere but effective white-wall-with-palm-tree set for ``Abduction,'' or Conklin's moody Americana house and rooms created for ``A Death in the Family.''

All productions are superbly lit by Peter Kaczorowski.

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The St. Louis Symphony sits in the pit, and Donald Palumbo's chorus is one of the finest in regional opera today.

``Abduction'' was the most controversial production of the four. It is usually treated as a silly, vacuous comic romp. Instead, British director Graham Vick sought to bring to the dialogue of this ``Singspiel'' or ``song-play'' something to match the serious, probing music.

Thus, Osmin, the Pasha's chief steward, is not an oafish clown but a figure of real menace. The Pasha becomes a young man, civilized, longsuffering, understanding.

What was good about the production was stunning, though flawed.

The third act aria for Belmonte should have been cut (no tenor today can do it justice). Generally, Mr. Vick would not adapt his often-severe concept to the limitations of the players themselves.

This led to some unnecessarily dreary scenes that would have worked just as well at a slightly faster clip or cut in half.

Unfortunately, neither Joyce Guyer (the Constanze) nor John LaPierre (the Belmonte) were up to their roles.

At least David Eisler (a vocally rough Pedrillo) and Cheryl Parrish (a delightful Blonda) made a believable couple.

Kenneth Cox's Osmin, serious and menacing, was vocally persuasive as well. And Peter Francis-James made an increasingly fine impression as the Pasha.

The St. Louis Symphony played very well for conductor Roger Neirenberg, who led a spirited, if occasionally quirky, account of the work.

``Hoffmann'' was being seen in a new performing edition by Colin Graham. This opera has been a success for most of its life, even though it has usually been performed in a bogus edition. In the past two decades, much of the original ``Hoffmann'' has been rediscovered.

The role of Nicklaus benefits the most from the exhumation -- three handsome arias and a real character for a change! Graham turns Nicklaus into Hoffmann's artistic self -- an effective idea that helps explain details in the plot that are usually too hard to fathom, such as why Nicklaus sings the ``Barcarolle'' with Giulietta.

The performance was always honorable, with Constance Fee (Nicklaus) and Frederick Burchinal (the four villains) most impressive.

As Hoffmann, Michael Myers was always tasteful, though rarely exciting.

As the four radically different heroines, Juliana Gondek brought a generalized grace and intermittently appealing vocalism to her work.

Graham's production seemed hampered by the turntable he opted to use for quick scene changes.

In the pit, John Nelson tended to have difficulty getting his orchestra to attack cleanly, and his reading lacked the stylish verve it really needed.

``A Death in the Family'' won a National Institute for Music Theater award as ``outstanding new work.''

In St. Louis, it was well performed by a large and dedicated cast (with Dawn Upshaw especially impressive as Mary), staged with naturalistic ease by Rhoda Levine, and conducted with assurance by Bruce Ferden.

As yet, the opera adds up to nothing. Mayer's libretto uses both the James Agee novel and Tad Mosel's play ``All the Way Home.'' It lacks punch.

The music is faceless and does little to push the drama forward. It seems to mire itself in waves of up-to-date atonal meandering, interspersed with Coplandesque folksong settings.

It is admirable that Opera Theatre wants to do something new each year. Unfortunately, this particular work was simply not worth reviving.

But one misguided effort hardly sabotages a remarkable season.

Few companies can boast the success rate of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This year, it triumphed in Rossini, challenged in Mozart, won new friends to Offenbach.

Because everything is done in English (two of Andrew Porter's excellent translations were heard this season), and because diction is usually so fine, the immediacy of opera is everywhere to be experienced.

Thor Eckert is music critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

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