Hubbard Hall’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a wild and wonderful evening. I admired most that the company and its director, David Snider, were able to take a show, based on repetition, one contestant after another, and keep it moving. Three roles are given the best chance to move from caricature to human, and they were each played very well indeed. Leaf Coneybear was given vibrant life by Sebastian Durfee. Jeffrey Vizcaino gave a performance of William Barfe that was a comprehensive, detailed and best of all, believable, portrayal of this role, so easily overdone. Best of all, Kyra Fitzgerald as Olive moved us in the midst of the hijinks. Yes, she is given a little more stretch and seriousness in the part, but this young actress got a hold of it and centered the whole performance. Her singing was never pushed; she made you listen to the details. It is very hard not to like this show. It engages on so many levels, and Hubbard Hall’s performance did it all kinds of justice.
In another intrepid move, Oldcastle Theatre Company invited a small opera company from Brooklyn to perform in its new venue. This in itself was admirable. Just think about it for a minute— a company with New York actors in a small village, and now New York singers as well. The troupe is Opera Oggi New York, led by an old friend, Thomas Lawrence Toscano. Two one-act operas were performed: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone, slightly brittle, still charming, and Made in America Part I: The Interview, a new opera by Mr. Toscano, addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our country’s involvement in it.
The highlight of the evening was passionate singing in the Toscano work by Perri Sussman, soprano, and Lyssandra Stephenso, mezzo-soprano. These two young singers gave every ounce of energy they had, and the piece itself articulated their positions in a direct and cogent way. Each of these operas was conducted by Mr. Toscano, also with passion. This was a beginning for Oldcastle that could be just right—intimate works, young singers, a cogent subject.
After the singing was over, there was a beneficial discussion of the issues, poliitical and artistic. Opera is not only The Met, said Maestro Toscano; there are many small companies, groups, collectives which produce moving and necessary work. The artists argued that opera needs to get back to a firm engagement with contemporary events. It was suggested that this was what happened in the 19th century. Yeah, sometimes. Giuseppe Verdi was clealy a political activist, but most operas then and now concerned mythic events, events which stay at some distance from the audience and everyday experiences. This seems the right kind of environment for singing. That said, Toscano’s young troupe made the events of this week, our time and our debates, singable and cogent. This was a fine beginning for opera at Oldcastle. We now have within fifteen or twenty miles, two small companies presenting operatic works, Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre and Oldcastle. May they continue to flourish!