City Opera Finally Scores with Riveting, Heartbreaking Seance

04/27/2011 9:03 AM |

Seance on a Wet Afternoon, City Opera’s last production of the season, is that all too rare thing: an exciting new work of musical theater. Composer and librettist Stephen Schwartz has proven adept at contemporary styles, from Godspell‘s infectious 70s rock to Wicked‘s dreadfully bland proto-Glee pop. So here, when he writes in the ultimate old-fashioned style, he can’t help but wind up with something pitched between old and new; his opera, commissioned by Granada Theatre of Opera Santa Barbara and debuted in 2009, channels Rodgers and Hammerstein’s post-operettas, with hints of Alan Menken updating (plus operatic grandeur). With sophisticated polyphonic compositions and lush, romantic swells of strings, Schwartz composes here in a stage idiom writ large. It’s a truly American opera.

Similarly, he elevates the pulpy plot to Grand Tragedy. Based on the 1964 movie of the same name and the mystery novel that inspired it, Seance concerns Myra Foster (phenomenal house favorite Lauren Flanigan), an unheralded psychic who devises, with the dead son (Michael Kepler Meo) with whom she communicates necromantically, a plot to gain prominence: her husband (Kim Josephson) will kidnap the daughter (Bailey Grey) of a prominent family, The Claytons (Todd Wilander and Melody Moore), and then she will aid the police investigation, establishing her extrasensory bona fides during the ensuing media circus. The relatively cheerful music of the two acts’ openers cleverly obscures the malevolence afoot, the truth of which first sneaks up in guttural growls from the winds. Mostly, though, the music embraces eeriness: the opera opens with a spookily orchestrated overture, evoking something between a Tim Burton soundtrack and a Disneyworld commercial. It’s a true mood-setter for the score to follow, all major sevenths, minor keys and diminished chords, hanging in the David H. Koch Theater like musical question marks, pouring forth in thick layers of strings peppered with tinkling bells; it frequently builds to unsettling moments of discordancy.

The libretto, on the other hand, has a noirish urgency to it in which not a piece feels disharmonious—part anxious heist and part psychological potboiler, heightened by Heidi Ettinger’s claustrophobic sets (part of Schwartz’s son Scott’s production): the main one, the half-exposed Foster house, is large, but comprised of smaller, separate, cramped pieces: the kitchen, parlor, bedroom, hallway—the characters move through isolated, boxed-in spaces that underscore their loneliness and despair. (Other sets, like Mr. Clayton’s office, are similarly boxy.) Seance builds to a dramatic climax among the most startling I’ve seen on a stage all season; Flanigan’s impossibly high, impossibly pained shrieks as she confronts her own self-delusions are tough to shake. In moments like this, or Act II’s “You Didn’t Know Her” (in which Myra’s husband touchingly defends his wife), Schwartz takes his lurid, plot-pushing types and fleshes them out, with much help from the dramatically accomplished cast; as such, his Seance is not merely riveting, but heartbreaking.

Seance will be performed again tomorrow night at 8 p.m., and many times more through May 1. Click here for more info. Tomorrow night’s performance will be followed by a lecture from The Secret Science Club as part of L Magazine-curated Act 4.

Hear Lauren Flanigan sing her Act I aria, “One Little Lie,” with Schwartz on piano: