‘Bon Appétit!’/ Conceived and directed by Benedicta Bertau/ Walking the dog theater/ With Diamond Opera Theater and Hudson Opera House/ Basilica Industria
EXPERIENCING TWO REMARKABLE VOICES and activating your choco-lust should probably be enough to get you to the Basilica Industria for an evening with Julia Child. There are two versions of her. Part 1 is spoken with songs and piano interludes. Part 2 is Lee Hoiby’s mini-opera “Bon Appétit.”
One of the voices belongs to Diamond Opera’s Mary Deyerle Hack. It is a warm, fat, free, expressive voice, attached to a big, deeply feminine woman whose pretty face registers lots of nuance, humor and a clear intention to communicate.
The other one belongs to Nina Fine. Fine’s voice is rangy, focused and agile, with a rich, silvery luster. In Part 1, she makes full use of that, plus a quirky, understated sense of humor, in Leonard Bernstein’s “La Bonne Cuisine.” Sadly, she is also burdened with an impossibly draggy version of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.”
Still, there is not nearly enough Nina Fine in this program. To be totally engaged we must wait for Part 2, when Hack rescues the evening with Hoiby’s one-woman, one-act opera, devoted to delightful instructions for creating a French chocolate cake! As for Part 1, my theater companion and I would have been much happier with a heftier Fine appetizer.
This is not to blame Johnna Murray (one of my favorite local actresses) for the faltering of Part 1. (She plays Julia Child as does Hack in Part 2.) In this segment, everyone on stage seems uncomfortable, except for Fine in her Bernstein and pianist Gili Melamed-Lev, rolling out some Erik Satie with sure, silky fingers. Unfortunately, not even Murray could make theater out of this travelogue-letters-home text. She tries valiantly, trying to make more out of the words than is really there. This text seems meant to be read silently by relatives rather than spoken to an audience.
Where in this segment is the characteristic inevitability of a Walking-the-dog (WTD) production? Instead there is awkwardness, leading to inappropriate audience thoughts, such as, “Why is she moving that chair again?” “Why is she smiling after that line?” “She looks uneasy in that entrance.” “What did that long silence mean?”
In Part 2 (the Hoiby opera), Benedicta Bertau reactivates her directorial smarts with a smooth, engaging cake-making process. The work is shaped so that Hack can let loose with her charming, spontaneous impulses, using the beautiful voice without ever committing the number one operatic sin: voice-as-an-end-in-itself.
Bertau notes that her approach to the material makes no attempt to “impersonate” Julia Child’s speaking voice, appearance, and personality. “It was her spirit, the contagious atmosphere she created, her no-problem, can-do, and you-can-do attitude,” Bertau says. My theater companion fondly remembers Child’s sensuous affair with food and the undeniable sincerity of her passion. Hack and Bertau capture that.
Composer Hoiby makes a few sections of the accompaniment sound like slightly up-dated Czerny exercises; but mostly the score rolls out in a graceful, accessible-modern style, treating the voice knowingly and giving the words discernible shapes and breathing room.
Opening night, after Hack had teased all salivary glands for 30 minutes or so, our choco-lust was assuaged with a sample of real chocolate cake. It was luscious, Elaine Khosrova-Julia Child, French chocolate cake–from the original recipe! Other chefs will follow in succeeding performances.
Bertau, Fine, Hack, Murray, and Melamed-Lev are five smart, gifted women who should get together again. And if Khosrova and the other chefs wish to bake for all future Diamond Opera/WTD productions, this reviewer will not complain.