A Commanding Performance
When the Central City Opera revived Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe a few seasons back, thunderous applause and full-voiced cheers filled the tiny theater for a full five minutes as a steady barrage of flower bouquets, many hurled from the far reaches of the balcony, showered the stage. It was a fitting reaction for a slice of Americana that was considered pioneering and daring when it premiered at the CCO in 1956. While the opening-night ovation for Englishman Benjamin Britten's Gloriana wasn't nearly as impressive or lengthy -- the CCO's production, which opened last weekend, is the first ever by an American company -- the enthusiastic response reserved for the show's star, Joyce Castle, evoked memories of the praise that audiences once heaped on the entire production of Baby Doe. As was the case then, Castle certainly proved deserving of the crowd's generosity.
The veteran mezzo, who riveted audiences with her portrayal of the Old Prioress in last season's The Dialogues of the Carmelites, doesn't let directorial excess keep her from delivering one of the best individual performances seen at Central City in the last five years. The three-act opera, which Britten wrote for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, centers on the reign of Elizabeth I (who was affectionately referred to as Gloriana). The collection of intimate scenes and elaborate masques -- essentially the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades of their time -- show the virgin queen's private and public personas, highlighting every ruler's struggle to reconcile individual desires with the duties of state.
A beautifully mercurial performer who can navigate wide emotional swings with a slight glance or gesture, Castle begins and ends the three-hour show by standing under an overhead spotlight, a wispy-haired, stoop-shouldered, solitary figure clad only in a white dressing gown and unadorned by the finery the real-life Elizabeth supposedly cherished. As the story unfolds, Castle reveals Elizabeth to be an emotionally fragile monarch who is always one step away from the precipice of ruin, whether in affairs of state (the Irish wars), her bedchamber (the rumored affair with the Earl of Essex) or her oh-so-public, frequent social gatherings (the open confrontation at a party with the Earl's prepossessing wife.) Throughout, Castle maintains an iron grip on her character, glides through most of the tricky vocal score with finesse and harnesses Act Three's high drama with admirable artistry: When Elizabeth assumes the mantle of power for the final time, Castle appears to experience a soulful sea change that's betrayed only by the flicker of an eye -- alone with her grief and burdened by nagging responsibilities, she's left to howl at deaf heaven for resolution and guidance. By the time the lights fade, she succeeds in delivering a performance of Shakespearean, even Greek proportions.
As in years past, the production features a splendid supporting ensemble, all of whom are in fine voice throughout. Gran Wilson sputters and fusses a tad too much as the Earl of Essex, but he quickly restrains his character's volatile ways to deliver a passionate, touching portrait of a complex man. Peter Volpe and Timothy Noble rise to the occasion as members of Elizabeth's courtly brain trust; their portraits are so warmly human that it seems a shame when either advisor has to exit the stage. Grant Youngblood, Cynthia Clayton and Elizabeth Batton make a fine trio of power-hungry subjects and vacillating revolutionaries; when joined by Wilson, the group's scheming to seize the throne rings true while providing plenty of intrigue. Apprentices Matthew Curran and Travis Richter more than hold their own as a blind ballad singer and master of ceremonies, respectively. If the apprentice distinction wasn't noted in their program bios, both performers could easily be taken for full-fledged pros. And the many chorus members and dancers provide a living, breathing background to the story without fading into it too much. In particular, choreographer Kimberly Mackin and her charges acquit themselves well during several Renaissance pattern dances -- maddening kick-and-hop exercises that can make even the most experienced ballet dancers look ridiculous.
If there is a problem here, it's with director Ken Cazan's choice to stuff a Santa Fe Opera-sized show into a theater that has less than one quarter the stage space. In most cases, a muffled shout in the distance would be more effective than using scores of supernumeraries to trumpet their passions from the edge of the stage. Even so, the imaginative director, aided by a cavalcade of stunning Renaissance costumes, conductor Hal France's robust orchestra and a serviceable setting, creates a lively, if cramped, environment for Britten's seldom-seen work. Were the show to be scaled down in much the same way that the revival of Baby Doe was gussied up, future productions of Gloriana would likely get the kind of ovation that rewards an all-around effort magnificently done.
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