Revive, revise - a summer exercise

Ann Chiaverini (left) plays Emma and Ellie Dehn has the title role in "Euryanthe," a one-of-a-kind opera by Carl Maria von Weber, presented by Bard SummerScape in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Ann Chiaverini (left) plays Emma and Ellie Dehn has the title role in "Euryanthe," a one-of-a-kind opera by Carl Maria von Weber, presented by Bard SummerScape in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. (CORY WEAVER)
Posted: August 11, 2014

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - Though well past the shelf life of the greatest Broadway dancers, Chita Rivera, 81, is now playing a one-legged woman - but not because she has to. The minute she takes her curtain call after The Visit at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the walking stick is gone, her step has bounce, and her presence has fire - all unneeded for her icy assignment in this deliciously nasty John Kander/Fred Ebb musical, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 play.

In the musical - one of two resuscitation efforts I viewed on a recent weekend exploring points north of Philadelphia - the richest woman in the world visits the hometown that wronged her, with merciless revenge on her mind and eunuch servants in tow. Originally conceived for Angela Lansbury, the show is in the latest of several versions presented over the last 13 years, always rich in possibilities but never quite getting there.

Now cut down to 90 minutes, The Visit, directed by acclaimed Sondheim director John Doyle and playing here through Aug. 17, is on what might be called the bound-for-Broadway diet, and for all of her gravitas, Rivera still seems to be getting used to it. The eunuchs are still there. The set looks like a derelict train station. But no longer does Rivera relax in her boudoir, artificial leg removed, singing "I'm not the woman I used to be." This is fragile subject matter - and maybe the most unlikely musical since Urinetown - but typical of summertime settings where the audience is congenial and the distractions of typical urban life don't interfere with the rehab endeavor at hand.

Down the road at Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., a chunkier diamond in the rough has been rescued from obscurity at Bard SummerScape: Euryanthe, by one of the less-sexy classical music names, Carl Maria von Weber. Who cares about him? Director Kevin Newbury, that's who: He staged the Philadelphia Orchestra's Salome this year, and claims he "solved" Euryanthe's dreadful libretto - full of snakes and ghosts - in a brief run that ended Sunday at the Fisher Center.

Problem pieces rarely come together completely. Even Leonard Bernstein admitted that his incessantly brilliant Candide will always feel dramaturgically redundant. Yet they often have more to say than their tidier counterparts.

What makes these two pieces worth saving?

For composer Kander, The Visit came to life as a dark variation on The Merry Widow (though his widow has lost seven husbands). She offers the citizens of her economically depressed hometown billions of bucks if they agree to murder the man (Roger Rees) who jilted her long ago. They initially refuse on moral grounds but gradually capitulate, their moral decline summed up in the snappy "Yellow Shoes," in which everybody buys trivialities on credit. Thereafter, anything related to selling one's soul is colored yellow. Smart touch.

Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004) often couched their icky but socially relevant subject matter in ironically entertaining frameworks - the Jazz Age vaudeville of Chicago, the minstrel show of The Scottsboro Boys - often using whatever type of music was in the air at that place and time to heighten the story.

The Visit offers no such entertaining pretense. The music doesn't create exterior atmosphere as much as it aims for everybody's soul - and for the vengeful billionairess, that means brittle, gnarled 1920s Kurt Weill as she lists her many marriages and any number of the "appalling things" that only the rich can get away with discussing in polite company. So far so good.

However, to make this a one-act show, Terrence McNally's libretto has been cut too much, almost as if in apology for the show's substance. Still there, luckily, is the Brechtian mid-distance from the audience, leaving room to ponder issues even more vital now than when Dürrenmatt's play first arrived six decades ago.

Morality has long been shaped by money, perhaps never more than now, when policymakers know better but, like The Visit's billionairess, take the low road anyway. And how can she demand the death of a man she still loves? Sometimes, lost love is like a computer virus that needs to stay quarantined.

 Few such social messages enter into Weber's 1823 Euryanthe, but musically, it's a 19th-century epicenter, a point of reference for understanding Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner, and never superseded by any of them.

In his earlier Der Freischutz, Weber dared to violently conjure the supernatural without conventional logic. Euryanthe has similarly splintered music: The ghost of a suicidal girl walks among the living, her otherworldly status represented by ethereal music that visits from remote harmonic areas.

But Weber also delivers a visionary narrative sense: Continuity between arias, recitatives, and choruses is consistently maintained using techniques later seized upon by Mendelssohn in his Violin Concerto, Schumann in his Symphony No. 4, and a certain Wagner opera titled Lohengrin, which basically rewrites Euryanthe.

Order and disorder coexist here with distinctive tension. Far more than a mere transitional piece, Euryanthe is a fully realized one-of-a-kind opera that would have created its own genre had the composer lived longer - and had the libretto not kept it off the stage.

Wisely, Newbury made the plot's ghost an intermittent presence, injecting a narrative wild card that accounts for the libretto's dramatic inconsistencies. Even better, the story is contextualized as a variation on The Scarlet Letter - a prim, corseted, aristocratic world, but with a red, scarlike X painted across soprano Ellie Dehn in the title role.

Musically, the big moments came off under conductor Leon Botstein, though recitatives and much else went slack - not what's needed in an opera whose innovation was narrative thrust.

Singing was excellent, especially with William Burden, a frequent Philadelphia visitor, bringing his upper range to a leading tenor role of Adolar, which truly requires it. But even if Euryanthe doesn't soon arrive at the Academy of Music, it's a piece I'll carry with me in other musical explorations, because Weber so often got there first.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

"The Visit" continues at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through Aug. 17. Information: www.wtfestival.org or 413-597-3400.

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