Opera in Concert’s scholastic double bill proves a comic gem

Sat Nov 18, 2017 at 2:26 pm
By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Jocelyn Hansen and Lauren McNeese in Chabrier’s “Une education manqueé,” presented by Opera in Concert Friday night at the Sammons Center for the Arts in Dallas. Photo: Mike Iven

If you didn’t quite know what to expect from a concert presented by an organization called “Opera in Concert,” you were not alone.  The event was held Friday night in a concert space at the Sammons Center for the Arts, a building easier seen than found and not known for operatic performances.

But you began to get the idea this was going to be something special from seeing the local opera cognoscenti arriving. Another promising sign was seeing the name of Stephen Dubberly as music director/pianist. This is a title he also holds in the University of Texas opera department as well as a position as an assistant conductor of the Fort Worth Opera.

“Opera in Concert” was not exactly accurate. The two comic one-acters were actually semi-staged by the organization’s founder Edward Crafts, whose credits include work at the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera. Working without sets and using modern-day costumes, his touch was light but extremely effective.

The first half of the double bill was Une education manqueé (A deficient education) by Emmanuel Chabrier. This composer, best known for the vibrant colors of his orchestration, especially suffered from the slimmed down piano accompaniment. However, the high quality of the excellent singers soon made you forget about what was lacking.

The creaky and dated plot revolves around two newlyweds that have no idea how to segue from “I do” to “We did.” Jocelyn Hansen was outstanding in the trousers role of the shy and clueless Count Gontran de Boismassif. (The Dickensian name means solid wood, like blockhead.) Hansen’s creamy and effortlessly produced soprano was a joy to hear.

As the Count’s equally naïve new wife, Lauren McNeese displayed a huge mezzo soprano voice that occasionally proved overpowering in the intimate acoustic.

In addition to his directorial duties, Crafts turned out to be a perfect clown with a glorious bass baritone voice. He was hysterical as Master Pausanias, the tipsy tutor to the young Count, who was equally clueless in the art of wedding-night duties.

The company spoke the dialogue in English but sang the music in the original French. While,  the French diction was acceptable, without supertitles or translations, most of us missed what was surely clever repartee, even in English.

The second opera, The Schoolmaster, proved completely different but equally amusing. This cantata/opera, about a schoolmarmish music teacher surrounded by unruly children, was originally attributed to the Baroque master, Georg Philipp Telemann.  It is now thought to be the work of the obscure Christoph Fehre (1718-1772).  Regardless, The Schoolmaster is an immensely clever work, and Crafts directed and supplied the English translation.

The title role was terrifically untaken by  John Kuether, another master comic and vocally gifted bass-baritone. His approach to the character, a permutation of pretentiousness and pomposity combined with a soupçon of silliness, immediately charmed the audience. It also spoke of a highly trained thespian background that included work on Broadway as well as opera.

His mischievous group of recalcitrant children was also marvelous as they tormented him every step of the way. Getting all of the young children to sing together at the end, considering the mess they made of a simple scale early on, was a miracle on the order of Professor Harold Hill’s accomplishment in Meredith Willson’s show, The Music Man.

The charm of the evening even extended to the announcement of Opera in Concert’s  next event. “It will be a surprise,” Crafts’ wife Heather advised. To everyone, no doubt.

Wouldn’t miss it.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is a professional musician and freelance journalist. He is a published composer and a classical music critic for Theater Jones, among other publications. He holds a Master of Music degree from Indiana University at Bloomington.

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