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Summer and Smoke

Central City Opera's final production this season wasn't originally intended to describe Colorado's current precarious condition, but there are some parallels between Summer and Smoke and what the state is going through these days. Like our extremely parched forests, composer Lee Hoiby and libretticist Lanford Wilson's version of this Tennessee Williams' drama is a powder keg waiting to happen. Beneath the genteel behavior and classical architecture of the sleepy town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, lie powerful forces waiting for the slightest spark to envelop the inhabitants.

John (John Hancock) and Alma (Jennifer Casey Cabot), Photo credit: Mark Kiryluk
John (John Hancock) and
Alma (Jennifer Casey Cabot)
Photo credit: Mark Kiryluk
For Miss Alma, the unmarried daughter of the local preacher and his mentally deteriorating wife, the only indications that we see of this impending conflagration is her smoke—her anxieties and embarrassments. However, for her love object, John Buchanan, there is no holding back his fiery passions and appetite for intoxication. Thus the stage is set for Williams' recurring exploration of the battle between the flesh and the spirit.

While it's no surprise that Tennessee Williams' lyricism and strong characters make his theatrical works prime candidates for adaptation to opera, having seen an exemplary production of this story a few years back at the Avenue Theater (Williams' reworked this piece sixteen years after it's debut as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale[and improved it!]), I must say that much of the subtleties of Miss Alma's whirlwind of emotions—the central action of the play—is lost in Hoiby's score, which generally lacks melody and the soaring dynamics called for in Williams' poetry. That is why this is only the second production of this opera in the past ten years, not, as the producer's argue, that it has somehow been overlooked or lost.

This attempt to create an operatic version of the play is misguided; better to have attempted to shepherd us impressionistically through the emotional journey of the play than to have set the play by rote to music. After all, in the theatre it is most often the subtleties of physical expression and the voice of the actors, not their words, that reveal their inner turmoil. So, an adaptation of a theatre piece to the opera would necessarily need a score that follows these emotional dynamics to convey the subtext of the play, yet in this adaptation over 90 percent of the libretto is Williams' text, with the music adapted to the cadence of these words, not their meaning.

Alma (Jennifer Casey Cabot) <br>>and John (John Hancock), Photo credit: Mark Kiryluk
John (John Hancock) and
Alma (Jennifer Casey Cabot)
Photo credit: Mark Kiryluk
This said, however, strong performances by Jennifer Casey Cabot, as Miss Alma, who imbues Hoiby's narrow musical characterizations with everything she has, and John Hancock, as John Buchanan, who seamlessly mixes refinement and compulsion, drive the action forward. In addition to Cabot and Hancock, the rest of the cast is also outstanding: Katherine Ciesinski, as Alma's mother, is a comedic delight; Andrea Edith Moore is appropriately na´ve and sweet as Nellie; Tony Dillon as Alma's father, is a convincing rough-edged and prejudiced preacher, showing contempt for Christina Nassif's seductive Rosa Gonzales and her lawless father, Raymond Diaz.

Central City Opera's Summer and Smoke runs in repertory with Carmen and A Midsummer Night's Dream through August 7th. 303-292-6700.

Bob Bows

 

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