A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 114: Three Great Evenings

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Audra McDonald in "A Moon for the Misbegotten." Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Audra McDonald in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Photo T. Charles Erickson.

Opus 131 at Tannery Pond

Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 131 makes Horatios of us all. We stand by, we listen to prophetic greatness, we try to respond, but it eludes us. Hamlet tells us there are more things he could say if he had more time. Doesn’t this sound like the Quartet? In the midst of sublimity, Beethoven finds humor. And most Hamlet-like of all, the serious and the risible are jam-packed together, with no recovery time for the listener. The time is short. The Mirò Quartet made this doubly so. The performance had an irresistible forward motion. Even the great set of variations were fleet of foot somehow. Every time I hear this piece I am bewildered. They made it clearer. Partly it was a relentless energy, but mostly it was their ability to make even what silence there is in the piece forward leaning.

The Tanglewood Music Center’s opera concert was splendid—one of the best concerts I have heard this summer. An intense and direct Idomeneo started the concert off, passionately conducted by Ken-David Masur. The Overture seemed to have wings. Very moving was the slow entrance of Dawn Upshaw whose rare singing, as always, was dead honest. Her partner in the long first scene between Ilia and Idamante was the excellent young mezzo-soprano from Peabody Conservatory, Zoe Band. Their back and forth was a beautiful thing to see and hear for two reasons- the intensity their musical conversation itself had, and that blessed thing one sees only at Tanglewood—skilled and accomplished artists singing as equals with young and very gifted Fellows. This, to me, is what Tanglewood is. Not a place for teacher and students, but a place where older and younger artists work together as peers, each giving the other something. In the Oswaldo Golijov opera, Ainadamar, Sophia Burgos sang the torturously difficult role of Margarita remarkably, reaching again and again for stratospheric notes and finding them. As always Golijov’s music has a spell-like power. Perhaps best of all was the first-act ensemble from Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. Not just well sung, it was brilliantly characterized. Last but not least, the two Fellow conductors, Ruth Reinhardt and Marzena Diakun were first-rate in guiding these scenes.

Williamstown Theatre Festival’s A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill is a balancing act well-lubricated by alcohol. Often alcohol dominates the stage. It helps the characters to speak truthfully, to figure out what the truth is. It debilitates their ability to act on it. Nothing seems to get accomplished; nothing seems to utterly fail. It just stays there on the high wire. The first half of the performance was nearly manic. Josie’s father, Phil Hogan, played by Glynn Turman, ranted away, and showed how much he loved his daughter, a love so great it almost worked a couple of times. Even in the midst of raging drunkenness (getting the dt’s, as he called it), he stated emphatically: I can clear my head. This had a rightness. His role was clear, and his performance was clear. In the first half of the play balance was enforced, enforced by energy.

The second half was a completely different story. It flirted with failure. Drinking revealed some of the truth, even when used by Josie as a coercive device to save the farm. But it was not powerful enough to hide the fragility which pervaded the long scene between Josie and Jamie. This was really abject failure, something that is not all that common in O’Neill. Jamie’s role in this scene is the hardest acting challenge of the night, and Will Swenson made a grand stab at it, even though his scene, his mothering by Josie, went long, and the play comes to a close almost abruptly.

I have nothing but admiration for the skill of these actors, Audra McDonald as Josie, and Will Swenson as Jamie Tyrone, who are almost able to hold the balance until the night comes.

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