United States Grétry, Zémire et Azor: The Opera Saratoga Orchestra / Lidiya Yankovskaya (conductor), The Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, New York, 14.7.2017. (RP)
Zémire – Maureen McKay
Azor – Andrew Bidlack
Sander – Christopher Burchett
Ali – Keith Jameson
Fatme – Lisa Marie Rogali
Lisbe – Katherine Maysek
Dancers/Puppeteers – Hannah Button, Sean Anthony Jackson, Alex Mace, Hannah Zinn
Director, Scenic & Puppet Designer – James Ortiz
Choreographer – Jill Echo
Costume Designer – Shima Orans
Wig & Makeup Designer – Sondra Nottingham
Lighting Designer – Brandon Stirling Baker
Bastille Day 2017 was a heady time for US-French relations. French President Emmanuel Macron feted his US counterpart, Donald Trump, with fine dining at the Eiffel Tower and the spectacle of a military parade down the Champs-Élysées that featured a flypast of fighter jets to symbolize present-day military cooperation between the two countries. This has not always been the case. Within recent memory, a Republican Congressman ordered that the word French be struck from Capitol Hill menus in response to France’s reluctance to send troops to the Iraq War; Congress instead munched on Freedom Fries.
Saratoga is of particular significance in the shared history of the two countries. With the American victory over the British in the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777, France recognized the independence of the new country and provided the colonies with open military assistance. It is also home to Opera Saratoga, which offered a perfectly delightful opportunity to celebrate Bastille Day with its final performance of a particularly American take on André Grétry’s Zémire et Azor. Never mind that the composer was actually born in Belgium: he spent almost his entire career in France.
Grétry’s opera is based on a fairy tale known the world over thanks to Walt Disney Pictures’ juggernaut of commercial culture, the Beauty and the Beast franchise. (Comparisons and marketing opportunities could hardly be avoided.) When it comes to fairytale beasts, however, James Ortiz’s puppet version of the Beast (named Azor in the opera) was as wondrous as any of the Disney animators’ creations. Operated by four remarkable dancers/puppeteers, the puppet Azor expressed a remarkable range of emotion through its penetrating, glistening brown eyes and movable mouth. Transformed by Zémire’s love into the sort of handsome young Prince about whom fairy tales are spun, tenor Andrew Bidlack as the singing Azor was no less impressive, spinning lovely legato lines and deftly dispatching the role’s florid passages.
Zémire is the youngest of the seafaring merchant Sander’s three daughters. When looking into a mirror that reflects her deepest desires, like Harry Potter she sees family, not fame or fortune. She eschews the finery that her sisters crave and desires only that her father bring her a rose from his travels. While hastily departing a mysterious island where he and his servant Ali were marooned, Sander plucked a rose that had an unsuspected thorn. Azor offers a quid pro quo for the bloom; in exchange for Zémire, Sander’s life will be spared and he and his luxury-loving daughters will be set for life. What’s a father to do? Zémire, self-sacrificing girl that she is, weighs in and goes off to meet Azor, fainting at her first sight of him. To the consternation of her family, her filial devotion is gradually eclipsed by love for the Beast, but in his human guise this prince – handsome, rich and generous – is definitely a keeper in their eyes.
Soprano Maureen McKay was enchanting as Zémire, who seemed to have stepped out of a Fragonard painting in her sparkling gown of deep peach and flowing, strawberry blonde locks. Vain pleasures may not interest the girl, but she admits to Azor that she likes to sing. He bids her to do so, and she obliges him with vocal acrobatics that enchant the beast and human listeners alike in the coloratura display piece ‘La Fauvette’. Later, she melted hearts in ‘Azor, Azor! En vain ma voix t’appelle’, each call of the Beast’s name echoed by the plaintive call of the horn. Who wouldn’t fall in love with such a visage and such a voice?
This was not French baroque opera for purists. The spoken dialogue was in English, while the arias and ensembles were sung in the original French. The text was pretty leaden at times. Phrases such as ‘miracle of love’, ‘earn humanity back’, ‘compassionate lady’ and ‘know thyself’ don’t exactly inspire, amuse or trip off the tongue. The humor was broad, more Borscht Belt than Fontainebleau, where the opera had its premiere in 1771. Tenor Keith Jameson dove into the comedic waters head first, and the hapless Ali that emerged was just terrific. His schtick, which had the audience in stitches, was as spot on as his singing.
Musically it was also a bit of a mishmash. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya displayed an affinity for the style (the ballet music was particularly lovely), but she faced both directorial and musical headwinds. The overture was overwhelmed by constant onstage activity. Tucked off in the rear of the stage, the small band of players was at times all but drowned out by the voices. You just had to scratch your head as to the violin playing: out of tune and grating come to mind. There are no complaints about the voices, however, with baritone Christopher Burchett as Sander and Lisa Marie Rogali and Katherine Maysek as his self-absorbed daughters, Fatme and Lisbe, rounding out the cast.
In addition to Azor, Ortiz conjured up two other delightful puppets, a bouncy white dog that was a gift to Fatme from her father, and a caterpillar-like Spirit of the Wind that transported Sander and Ali home from Azor’s island. For the set, he conceived a central tower encircled by a crenellated wall, with rotating sections that deftly transformed Sander’s home into Azor’s crumbling castle. Shima Oran’s period garb for the singers lent an air of glamour to the production, while her glittery, darker costumes for the dancers added a sense of mystery, underscoring the sinister elements of the tale.
Leaving the theater, I overheard a young girl detailing to her father the ways in which the opera differed from Beauty and the Beast. With her acute powers of observation and exacting standards, she is a born critic. She did not have much to say about the singers though; Disney can only hope to top them.