REVIEW: Hudson Hall opera nurture’s new life for ‘Mother…’

“The Mother of Us All” / Hudson Hall

WOMEN GET TO VOTE. Yay! Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see it, but we couldn’t have done it without her. She deserves an opera, and Gertrude Stein (words) and Virgil Thomson (music) gave her one. It’s alive at Hudson Hall.

The 1947 piece is also about varieties of coupledom, marriage and pervasive male power. It is also about words and sentences and about the author herself.

During Stein’s lifetime, among the artsy intelligentsia, innovation was a huge motivator. Visual arts were busy smashing up realism, serious music dived into folk idioms and dissonances, and writers deliberately mucked around with meaning and messed with its building supplies (words, sentences, story and linear logic). The opera is a lot about Gertrude and Virgil reaching to be more-innovative-than-thou. Lots of people think they succeeded. Still, since 1947, playwrights and composers have not rushed to explore the Stein-Thomson mode.

Maybe Hudson Hall’s production team was nervous about a libretto that includes passages like this:

GS: Susan B. was right, she said she was right and she was right.

VT: She was right because she was right.

GS: Susan B. was right.

VT: She was right because she was right.

GS: It is easy to be right, everybody else is wrong so it is easy to be right.

VT: And Susan B. was right, of course she was right.

GT: It is easy to be right.

Or maybe producers worried that some Columbia County denizens were going to conclude that this empress is wearing no clothes–and that’s why marketing has surrounded the performances with folksy and explanatory public events. They included the cast voting for Halloween costumes, a free open rehearsal, a discussion of “Opera Systems—Then and Now,” “Local Suffrage + Abolitionism + Gender Equality,” and “Queer Narratives.”

That last, director R.B.Schlather explains, is offered because both creators of “Mother…” were gay—as was (probably) Susan B.—as is he himself, he says. I suppose the counter tenor in pink lace and satin might qualify, but the staging seemed to be easy, intelligent staging that serves the words and the music and the actors and breathes freely in the space.

The space is huge and gymnasium-like. The performers use it while mostly ignoring the stage itself. Actors and audience are mixed in the performing space. I’m not sure that accomplishes anything, except perhaps to say “these characters are just people like you” or “Ha! You’re a part of an opera!”

Schlather genuinely seems to want opera to get off its high horse and walk on the earth with real folks. He implies that there is no wrong experience of “Mother…” and urges us to “own” whatever experience we get.

I own that my experience was:

1. physically uncomfortable: We were jammed into rows so close together that our noses nearly brushed the heads in front of us.

2. thrilled by certain performances. Foremost here, is the astonishing Michaela Martens. Her voice radiates health and beauty. Upstairs it is free, fat and untrammeled. Down low, it slides imperceptibly into a natural chesty dominance. It is never forced or phony. It serves character seamlessly, just as her movement does. (Martens’ movement is cousin to her voice.) Her body has found a sweet spot between power and relaxation that belongs only to certain special human beings. Marten’s act when “acting” is not acting. (Take that, Gertrude.) The woman just lives Susan B.

Among the astonishers is Robert Osborne as famous orator, Daniel Webster. His bass shines. His diction is orator-perfect and his demeanor is dignified and oozing with male ego–until he unleashes a cheerful, loose-limbed waltz and a series of wiggles.

There is a luscious-voiced tenor, Dominic Armstrong, as Jo the Loiterer. Armstrong’s Jo is a multi-faceted, funny, uncommon common man. The actor is so much more than Jo on the page.

Casting sexy, tall, blonde Nancy Allen Lundy as dark, bulbous Gertrude Stein is a sassy choice. (Is Nancy the inner Gertrude?) I like it, whatever it is. She and Kent Smith (as Virgil Thomson) grab audience eyes as they tussle over a stool, perhaps negotiating the creation details of “Mother…”.

3. damaged by light and lack of it. November afternoon light from the Hall’s nine, tall, skinny, multi-paned windows and five fluorescents on either side were not conducive to watching or locating the actors.

4. wounded by unintelligible words: No matter where you sit, actors often have their backs to you, and unfortunately, this super-live room eats up words. Gertrude is about Words. Lose them and you lose the piece.

5. happy hearing the score, the orchestra and the chorus. Except for a few times when I was begging the major triad for mercy, I was cherishing the score’s vigor and transparency. Especially tasty were several duets and trios between flute, clarinet, between trumpets, or some small combination of instruments. Sometimes a bit less horn would have been welcome, especially when it coupled with a voice. The folk song is a recurring pleasure; and the well-disciplined chorus soars thrillingly from the balcony and elsewhere.

I should have consulted the Stein scholar attached to this production (Joan Retallack) to see if scholars assume that Thomson set out to musically mimic the author’s technique with repetition and, often by sticking to the triad and the major scale as if they were one-syllable words. Rural America was in fashion in those days, and primitive and folk harmonies became a part of Thomson’s vocabulary.

The score often gives extra zip to Stein’s funny lines. That was not emphasized here.

6. engaged by the many crowds walking slowly across the space like some embodiment of time.

7. confused about the staging of the ending.

If you want some of that fun, and you want to hear singing and acting done right, and you want to get acquainted or re-acquainted with Stein, hit Hudson Hall this weekend for cancellations. Maybe two weekends is too short a run.

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