THE GRAND DUKE AT MIT: The MIT G&S Players' production of THE GRAND DUKE, directed by Chuck Berney, proves what I've long believed: the last Savoy opera does not need a huge cast, an elaborate production, and a great amount of cuts to work on stage. What it does need is energetic singing actors (capable of doubling roles at a moment's notice) and a lot of spirit, and that's what we got on opening night at the Sala de Puerto Rico. What we were left desiring was a better-rehearsed orchestra (capable players they were, but Dave Alexander at the piano provided no direction to speak of); what amazed me was how the cast managed to sing, conductorless, without missing a beat.
Michele McVeigh, for my money, was the best in the show; she's an appealing, stylish performer with perfect diction and a glorious contralto. Her Baroness was matched by Peter Stark's Duke; he was exceedingly droll, and their haba$era duet (both verses!) was splendid. Heather Connolly has a magnificent soprano and all the ardor at her command to impersonate Julia; I'll bet she could have managed the German accent, too, but that little bit of topsyturveydom was not attempted here. We were treated to French accents from Colman Reboy and Victoria Reid, the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo, and their strong performances gave the finale its necessary lan. Steve Rapaport navigated the immense role of Ludwig with sureness and a certain goofy hysteria that worked. I might rather have seen him as an appropriately gawky and young (after all, he's just come of age) Duke Rudolph and Peter Stark, much more Rutland Barrington-esque, as Ludwig. Sally Powers (last year's MIT Ida) sang Lisa beautifully and made an affectingly crushed despairing violet. Robert Kobee's Ernest was a bit harsh of voice and Ryan Caveney's Notary somewhat characterless, but the ensemble (including Patricia Brewer and Nancy Burstein) was impressive: seven women and three (count'em) men did real justice to the extensive chorus part. The market place of Speisesaal (designed by Matt Sikorski) doubled for the second act, a reasonable economy, and the TROILUS AND CRESSIDA costumes (minus Lois XIV wig) were simple but effective.
While the dialogue was trimmed a bit, the score was given virtually intact; for the record, aside from a dropped verse or two and the traditional omission of Julia's "Oh pity me," the significant casualties were the Duke's sick song (which I didn't miss) and Julia's mad scene (which I did). But Chuck Berney's direction caught the essential nature of the opera; as Max Keith Sutton's insightful article has pointed out (see papers from U. of Kansas symposium), THE GRAND DUKE is a Dionysian rite, where Ludwig, the Lord of Misrule, chucks out the establishment and indulges in wine, song, women (four of them), dance, and gaming tables. [We'd be glad to see that paper, Jonathan! - could you lend Us a copy, and We'll print it?! - mlc.] And when the holiday is over, we're right back (practically) where we started. (NB: GRAND DUKE is the only G&S opera that opens and closes with the same music.) Berney thinks of THE GRAND DUKE as an anti-operetta, and indeed it is: it appropriates all the cliches of the fin de siecle continental school and desentimentalizes them; is there a less likely "operetta" heroine than Julia Jellicoe -- or, for that matter, a juicier one?
-- JONATHAN STRONG