Williams: The Poisoned Kiss

Bronx Opera

Hunter College, New York City, 10 February 2012

4 stars

Bronx Opera Poisoned Kiss The Bronx Opera is one of New York's more admirable opera companies. In the past, the group has presented two Ralph Vaughan Williams operas, Hugh the Drover, and Sir John in Love. This time, they offered the the first performance in years of The Poisoned Kiss, an operetta composed by Vaughan Williams in the late 1920s and mid-1930s, first performed in Cambridge at the Arts Theatre in 1936.

I had seen a performance at a music school in London in the 1980s, and fell in love with the piece. This is not surprising, as Hugh the Drover is my favourite British opera. It contains more rapturous music than many other English works, and you can count on Vaughan Williams to conjure up a folk-ish pattern to the score, either using or fabricating his own folk songs, which makes it even more irresistible to me.  Think of Smetana's The Bartered Bride, which is a useful opera to compare to other Williams' works—and first composed, similarly, as an operetta.

The same folk-ish patterns appear in The Poisoned Kiss, although the libretto is not as deft as the one supplied by Harold Child for Hugh the Drover, which details Napoleonic times in the Cotswolds.  Two story are the basis for The Posisoned Kiss: The Poison Maid by Richard Garnett, from 1888, and—perahps surprisingly—Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter (1844).

The plot concerns a magician's daughter, Tormentilla who, having been brought up on poisons, will kill any suitor with her kiss. Her suitor is Amaryllus, son of the empress. Two additional key figures are Tormentilla's maid, Angelica, and her boyfriend, Gallanthus, who have a sizeable amount of luscious music together, and then a trio of gypsies (technically, mediums) and the magician's hobgoblins, Hob, Gob, and Lob. These groups of three are useful to fill out the finales with their voices. Their numbers are a bit repetitive, although in this score I particularly admire the tango for the three gypsies.

The Poisoned Kiss had undergone dialogue revisions by Ursula Vaughan Williams in the 1950s. The dialogue was further modified for this production by Benjamin Spierman, its very capable director. Michael Spierman, a wizard of a conductor with Vaughan Williams (and many other neglected works) roused the orchestra into a far better synthesis of the score than the rather lethargic recording on Chandos, conducted by the late Richard Hickox – who, in any case, has the huge merit to have revived Williams' operas.

Bronx Opera Poisoned KissThe production was spare, with just a few risers and furniture, and projections on slinky curtains. The setting had the effect of emphasizing the music even more: the operetta was extremely well-sung by a cast of young singers on January 21st, when I saw it at Hunter College. The performance also benefited from the fine house: the theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx that the company uses is a high-raked, acoustically fine auditorium, with excellent sight-lines (well-worth travelling to the outer borough to pay a visit).

As I mentioned, the cast was filled with truly excellent voices.  Tormentilla, Hannah Rosenbaum, was the leader. She delivered her rather wistful (and macabre) arias very touchingly. The prince, Kirk Dougherty, had a fine tenor voice. Angelica, played by Cabiria Jacobsen, and Gallanthus, played by Jeremy J. Moore, were vocally terrific, and managed to be amusing as well as attractive in their acting. Richard Bozic as the magician sang nicely, but he was considerably surpassed by the Empress, Leslie Swanson. She appears only in the third act, creating a commanding and diva-esque presence that threatened to steal the show away from the other singers. The hobgoblins and gypsies worked well their spells, and the chorus was efficient.

Several musical numbers are to be cherished, especially the duet between Gallanthus and Angelica in Act I , "It's really time I did begin", which sounds not unlike the folk-song "Barbara Allen". The words are clever, and the sentiments homespun. The same characters also have another charming duet, "It's true, I'm inclined to be fickle." Tormentilla's song to her poisonous cobra is quite funny, as is her paean to prussic acid and arsenic.  The duet between the fateful lovers Amaryllus and Tormentilla was very nicely rendered. The finale to the first act ("All is ready") came off brilliantly, with the various participants carefully outlined.

In the second act, there is something of a donwfall, but you can trust Williams to increase the rapture with a flower chorus, as well as well as a wonderful duet for the lovers, just before Amaryllus dies (well, not quite). Once again, the finales to the second and third acts are glorious, even though Evelyn Sharp's words can be a trifle pedestrian.

In all, once again I had a thrilling time with Vaughan Williams, whose operas surely deserve to be seen and heard much more frequently.

By Richard Traubner

Photo Credits: Ian Douglas/New York Times.



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