Opera Review: ‘Summer and Smoke’

By Caldwell Titcomb

The operas of Lee Hoiby don’t come around often, but the best known of his seven stage works is Summer and Smoke, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. I still vividly remember the 1952 New York production of the play, which put off-Broadway firmly on the map and elevated the late Geraldine Page to stardom in the central role of Alma Winemiller (a part she recreated in the fine 1961 film version).

Composer Lee Hoiby

Years later, Williams was asked which of his plays he would like to see made into an opera, and he named this work. So playwright Lanford Wilson fashioned a libretto and Hoiby composed the score. Williams was pleased with the result, which had its premiere in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1971.

Bostonians had a chance to see the work last weekend when the New England Conservatory Opera Theatre produced it for three performances at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The talent pool was sufficiently large to permit double casting in almost all of the fifteen roles.

The opera, set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, follows the play closely, beginning with two neighboring children aged ten and then jumping ahead some 15 years to the World War I period. The two characters are Alma, the neurotically repressed daughter of a clergyman, and John Buchanan Jr., the dissolute son of a successful physician. In a way the pair are counterparts of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, though the outcome is quite different.

Alma has a secret crush on John, which she stifles by giving music lessons and running a cerebral if helter-skelter book club. John follows in his father’s footsteps and sticks to pragmatism and his anatomy charts while chasing available skirts elsewhere. In the end Alma confesses her love to John, who rebuffs her in favor of marrying one of her music pupils, whereupon she picks up a stranger, a traveling salesman, and, saying, “All rooms are lonely where there is only one person,” heads off for a one-night stand.

The Conservatory’s opening-night cast was solid, with Alexa Lokensgard impressive as Alma. Hoiby sets words to generally neo-romantic music admirably, but the score in Act I is no more than serviceable. The one exception is his quite inspired setting, near the end, of Alma’s wonderful speech about Gothic cathedrals “reaching up to something beyond attainment.” Act II gives us distinguished music virtually throughout.

Patrick McNally was a strong John, Bradford Gleim a sturdy Rev. Winemiller, and Maria Puliafico comical as the minister’s crazed wife. Carolyn Stein and Sara Ann Mitchell were effective as John’s flames Rosa and Nellie. Ryan McGettigan designed suitable sets, though one would have liked a more solid outdoor Eternity fountain. Marc Astafan directed his actors ably, whether in twos or as a large, balloon-waving Fourth of July crowd. The 38-person orchestra played confidently for guest conductor Dean Williamson, who has had broad operatic experience throughout the country.

In the spring (March 7-9) the Conservatory Opera Theatre will reach far back to mount a production of Francesco Cavalli’s L’Egisto (1643), one of the most popular of his 30-odd operas in its time but little known today. As with the Hoiby, this is exactly the sort of thing our conservatories should be doing.

1 Comment

  1. mark on December 17, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    “the score in Act I is no more than serviceable. . . . . . Act II gives us distinguished music virtually throughout.”

    Sounds like you knocked back a few at intermission.

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