Long Leaf Opera's latest offering, on April 25 (the performance seen by this reviewer) and 27, in the NCCU University Theatre, was a pair of two modern one-act works with medieval connections, albeit of two very different sorts.
The first half of the program featured Carlisle Floyd's 1972 Flower and Hawk, a one-woman tour de force about the last day of Eleanor of Acquitaine's near-sixteen-year imprisonment, in the Tower at Salisbury, under the orders of her second husband, Henry II Plantagenet. She believes that the day will end with her execution and thus spends it reminiscing about the major events of her life: her youth in Poitiers amongst the troubadours, her marriage to Louis VII of France and divorce from him, her affair with and subsequent marriage to Henry, and the loss of her son Richard the Lionheart. Several times, suggesting the hours of meals, a monk enters the cell and leaves again, and the final time, when she believes he will lead her to the scaffold, he ostensibly reveals that the tolling bells signify Henry's death, thus preventing hers, but the role, played by Steven Marquez, is entirely mute.
Patricia Toledo (http://www.patriciatoledo.com/ [inactive 11/05]) handled the approximately 50-minute monologue extremely well. She moved around the stage, used different props, and varied her dramatic gestures and expressiveness appropriately to suit the various memories and her varying age at the time. Her voice was well supported and her diction excellent. Any difficulties in the comprehension of her words were the result of the acoustics of the hall and the lack of a pit for the piano - its top was slightly above the level of the stage, forcing the voice to project over its percussiveness. The piano score - it was unclear whether this was a reduction or the original instrumentation - was handled extremely well by Deborah Hollis. Eleanor's gown, designed by Kristin Vaughan, was lovely, but many of the props were more Victorian than Medieval, which seemed a bit incongruous to this medievalist who did considerable research in years past on Eleanor.
The major problem with the performance sprang from the work itself, which suffers from too much sameness. While the music often underscores the text brilliantly, it is also often too repetitive, in a minimalist kind of way, when it needs some variety to distinguish the individual reminiscences from each other. Toledo's voice needed a like kind of variation. This notwithstanding, the performance was in many ways riveting and held the audience's attention well - not an easy accomplishment in light of the absence of mood changes in the score.
After intermission, we were offered Mark Bucci's (1923-2003) Tale for a Deaf Ear , based on Elizabeth Enright's story of the same title from her collection The Moment Before the Rain and premiered in August 1957 at Tanglewood. The composer described the c.50-minute-long work as "... a contemporary miracle play rather simplistically showing that hate kills and love regenerates."
The work opens with a Sunday afternoon marital argument in the Gates household; Tracy was played by Jean-Ronald LaFond, and Laura, by Jennifer Seiger. Tracy, drinking, becomes overexcited, has a heart attack, collapses, and dies; Laura drops to her knees and prays for his return to life. A Greek Chorus, positioned on the stage-left wing, in front of the proscenium (and consequently difficult to comprehend because its sound was projected across the front of the stage rather than out to the audience), tells us that this had indeed happened three times before, and we are treated to tableau-like depictions of the three occurrences, in medieval-miracle-play style. First is a Florentine mother (played by Olive McKrell) praying for the return of her dead infant; second, a Scottish cowherd (Ashley Kerr) praying for her lost cow, Loody; and third, a German soldier (Michael Kilbridge), praying for his killed comrade Karli (portrayed by Marquez, again in a mute role). All three prayers are answered, and so is Laura's, but immediately she and Tracy take up their argument again, and he succumbs a second time, bringing the work to a close.
In general, the lead-role singing was outstanding here, even if not quite as impressive as Toledo's; as in the Floyd, the problems sprang more from the work itself and from the staging, which was perhaps a bit too simplistic, than from the performance. The three miracle tableaux were progressively weaker, the second seeming downright silly and the last being overly long. Some better directing and out-of-the box thinking might have livened them up a bit, but they essentially fell flat on their faces. One wonders as well what purpose was served by having these texts sung in the language of their settings: why the need for this element of realism in a work requiring such a suspension of disbelief? The lead roles of the Gates couple were much better realized, but (as with the Floyd work) the props, and here Laura's costume as well, were anachronistic to the '50s setting. The score was a reduction for two pianos, two electronic keyboards and percussion, all very well handled by Richard Wall and Charles Hogan and percussionist Brett Conner, positioned on the stage-right side wing opposite the Greek chorus. The lack of a pit seemed a bit less of a problem with this music than with the Flower and Hawk score although occasional lines, mostly in the miracle tableaux, further complicated by their being in a language different from that of the main story, did not carry well over the instruments.
The printed program was a bare-bones affair with cast listings, capsule synopsis of one and history of the other work, and capsule artist bios on the reverse, but no info on the composers. An insert bore the English translation of the texts sung in Italian, Scots, and German, respectively, of the three resurrection miracles in Tale . In spite of the shortcomings, the evening was enjoyable and this reviewer appreciated, as always, the opportunity that the LLO company provides to see works not frequently staged, even if the productions are not quite totally of the "professional" variety one might like to match the high quality singing in the lead roles.
At the opening of the evening, Randolph Umberger, LLO's Artistic Director, announced the 2003-4 season: Michael Daugherty's 1997 Jackie O in the fall, the company's wonderful production of Gian Carlo Menotti's 1951 Amahl and the Night Visitors (reviewed in 2001 in its first season by myself) at Christmastime, and two one-acters, Lee Hoiby's Italian Lesson (1998) and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti (1951), in the spring.