Sunday, January 15, 2012

Poisoned Kiss: Vaughan Williams at the Bronx Opera

Act I: Coffey and Davis (c) Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived in an enchanted forest a maiden whose name was Tormentilla. She was placed there by her father Dipsacus, a powerful enchanter who raised her on a diet of poisons. She learns to her horror that her first kiss will be fatal; a scheme designed by Dipsacus to punish the Empress (whom he loved in his youth) by killing her only son. Tormentilla, however, had already given her heart to that very youth, Amaryllus, while believing him to be a goatherd. Her maid, Angelica, was meanwhile courted by Gallanthus, the prince's valet. A sojourn in Golden Town allowed Tormentilla and Angelica to experience the pleasures of high society, but failed to distract Tormentilla from thoughts of her sad plight. Aided by the spells of hobgoblins, Amaryllus found his way to her; overcome with emotion, the lovers kissed. The Empress spirited away her unconscious son. Since she, intuiting her former lover's plan, raised Amaryllus on antidotes, she was shocked to find that he languished near death for mere lack of his beloved. Softened by recollections of her own youthful passion, she allowed their union. She and Dipsacus were reconciled, Angelica married Gallanthus, and the hobgoblins were affianced with the Empress' mediums. And, Gentle Readers, they all lived happily ever after.

Such is the plot of Ralph Vaughan Williams' rarely staged opera (or, as he called it, romantic extravaganza,) The Poisoned Kiss. Saturday night saw the opening performance in a run by the Bronx Opera which marks the work's professional premiere in New York. From its 1936 premiere onwards, the work has been compared to the oeuvre of Gilbert & Sullivan; the Bronx Opera treated the music with the seriousness it deserved, while acknowledging the drama's farcical elements. There is a widely-held critical opinion that Vaughan Williams' music and Evelyn Sharp's libretto for The Poisoned Kiss do not always complement each other stylistically, with blame usually being attached to the libretto. Ursula Vaughan Williams reports that Sharp "took the story more portentously" than the composer had intended, with "too much of the triumph of love." Correspondence indicates that Vaughan Williams intention was to write a light comic entertainment; staged, I think it succeeds admirably. (I had wondered whether the topical humor of '36 would still work; it appeared to be enjoyed by all.) Satire and farce reside mostly in the libretto, and its commentary on the drama which expresses itself in lyrical phrasing and lush harmonies.

Act II: Hamula & Penaverde
(c) Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY
Under the leadership of Eric Kramer, the Bronx Opera orchestra gave an energetic and emotionally committed account of the richly melodic score (you can hear the overture here.) There were a few moments of muddy coordination, but the ensemble was responsive throughout; the woodwind solos, especially, were handled beautifully. The drama's mixture of fairy-tale fantasy and topical satire was nicely handled by the Bronx Opera's creative team. Costumes (Meg Zeder) alluded to the interwar period of The Poisoned Kiss' composition, with Dipsacus and his hobgoblins aptly old-fashioned, and the dandified prince in preposterous spats. Atmospheric lighting suggested the depths of the enchanted forest, to be succeeded by more prosaic effects for the Art Deco interior of Tormentilla's flat. Small roles were ably filled; the Empress' mediums blended their voices nicely and enunciated their "mystic exercises, cabalistic, mediumistic" admirably. The Empress herself, Carolyn Sebron, showed some vocal unsteadiness at the outset, but had admirable presence. Andrew Klima, Luis Gonzalez, and Robert C. Joubert contributed fine work as the hobgoblins, with good vocal characterization and comedic chemistry with each other. Michael Blake O'Hearn, as the deluded Dipsacus, started a bit dry, but gave a fine buffo turn.

Of the two pairs of lovers, the "subplot" wooers left the more vivid impression. As in Die Zauberflöte, the socially superior pair suffers more from conventionality. This is especially true of the somewhat bland Amaryllus, who gives up a past of promiscuous flirtation ("It's true I'm inclined to be fickle") to adore Tormentilla. Rogelio Peñaverde displayed a very pleasant timbre, but sounded somewhat pushed as the prince. As the unfortunate Tormentilla, Julie-Anne Hamula handled her long phrases elegantly, both in the lullaby for her cobra and her plaintive lament, "O who would be unhappy me (brought up on prussic acid)". Jason Coffey played Gallanthus as a young man satisfied with the comforts of his position, and perhaps a bit too well-satisfied with himself. His diction was good, his presence engaging, and his baritone pleasingly smooth. Mezzo Tynan Davis, as the long-suffering, luxury-craving maid, gave what I thought was the standout performance of the evening. Of all the characters, Angelica is the most aware of the scenario's absurdity, and Davis engaged the audience's sympathy without letting her exasperation become too exaggerated. She offered vocal contributions to match her dramatic engagement, with nicely shaped and expressive phrasing. While the princely pair sings of love poured out like wine, Angelica and her beau anticipate a night of dancing; and with all thus satisfactorily sorted, the audience was sent home humming (at least, I was.) The opera's second weekend of performances will take place at the Kaye Playhouse in Manhattan, with alternating casts; tickets available at 212-772-4448.

Curtain call photos:

Hobgoblins and mediums

O'Hearn and Sebron (Dipsacus and Persicaria)

Davis and Coffey (Angelica and Gallanthus)

Hamula and Penaverde (Tormentilla and Amaryllus)

Company bows

Cast and conductor applauding orchestra

With director Benjamin Spierman


  1. I am grateful for the review; I am seeing the opera next weekend and had no idea what to expect. I found very little information about this rarely performed work, and now I am quite excited to see it!

    1. Glad this was useful; hope you enjoy the performance!

  2. hi, Rogelio B. Penaverde Jr is my brother....just the proud sister!


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